Local programs may be new focus to fight Ohio poverty

14-member state council would promote creation of councils in each of Ohio’s 88 counties.
MCT Regional News
Apr 26, 2014

Nearly two decades after welfare reform attempted to help the poor find work and self-sufficiency, Ohio GOP leaders want to give it another shot.

Tucked into Gov. John Kasich’s off-year budget bill, recently approved by House Republicans, is a plan to create the Ohio Healthier Buckeye Council and local affiliates tasked with reducing reliance on tax-funded assistance programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and welfare.

The 14-member state council would promote the creation of councils in each of Ohio’s 88 counties that would compete in the coming year for $2.4 million in grants to combat poverty.

Rep. Ron Amstutz, a Wooster Republican who pushed the House to add the plan to the budget bill, said the goal is to help “struggling Ohioans move up to a better place in their lives” with jobs that pay enough to support them and their families and end reliance on public assistance.

He envisions community-led efforts involving local officials, businesses, charities, Medicaid managed-care plans, schools and human-services agencies.

“It’s kind of grandiose. I admit that,” Amstutz said.

The proposal follows Kasich’s decision last fall to expand tax-funded Medicaid health coverage to tens of thousands of low-income Ohioans.

Although legislators refused Kasich’s request to approve Medicaid expansion (the governor ultimately did so through executive order), Republicans during the debate pushed for requirements that those gaining health care had to work and would get help pulling themselves out of poverty.

Amstutz said the Ohio Healthier Buckeye Council would complement a like-minded proposal Kasich included in his budget plan to create the Office of Human Services Innovation. The office within the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services would submit recommendations to the governor for helping Ohioans find jobs, increase their earnings and stay out of poverty.

The goals are similar to those of the sweeping federal welfare reform in 1996.

Since 1997, when Ohio enacted its own version of welfare reform, the number of people receiving a monthly public-assistance check has plunged to 121,528, the fewest in at least five decades. (More than 80 percent are children.)

But shrinking welfare rolls and falling unemployment have not stopped Ohio’s poverty rate from climbing in recent years. More than 16 percent of Ohioans are living below the federal poverty level — for a family of four, that’s an annual income of no more than $23,850 a year.

Advocates for the poor applaud the efforts of state leaders to re-energize the war on poverty but caution that it requires a comprehensive approach and has a hefty price tag.

“Welfare reform and other programs talked about doing the same thing, but I think we underestimate the challenges people have to becoming stable,” said Eugene King, director of the Ohio Poverty Law Center.

“We tend to address one component, like work training, but that doesn’t address the two dozen other issues.”

Human-services officials cite hurdles such as transportation, child care, lack of education or training, health problems, addictions and family stability.

Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association, said lawmakers are on the right track trying to bring the private sector, charities and government officials together on the local level.

“Our systems can do a much better job of working together,” Potts said.

Still, during welfare reform in the late ’90s, it boiled down to money.

“We had a ton of money and contracted with every United Way and every Goodwill (to provide services to the poor), and when the money dried up, so did their charity.”

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By Catherine Candisky - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)

©2014 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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