Updated Mon, Oct 7, 2013 10:36 am
Two reports published within months of each other say Ohio county agencies tasked with helping welfare recipients find jobs have instead focused their efforts on reducing their caseloads in order to meet a federal requirement.
One report says “all counties with the exception of Athens took this approach, either intentionally or unintentionally.”
Here’s some background: A federal law initially passed in 1997 said 50 percent of those receiving cash assistance had to be placed in some sort of work program. States that failed to hit that 50 percent mark faced hefty sanctions.
Ohio’s county agencies weren’t hitting the mark, and it got expensive. How expensive? Thirty million dollars a year in fines expensive, said Jack Frech, director of Athens County Job and Family Services.
“Once Ohio collected over $100 million in sanctions for not meeting the work requirement, the state put pressure on the counties to get their levels up,” Frech said.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services directed agencies to focus on upping the work participation rates. Once that happened, the numbers improved. For the past two years, Ohio has met its work participation rates, but the two reports reveal agencies did this by reducing the number of people served. One report, published in May by the Public Consulting Group, calls it focusing on the “denominator.”
“The state of Ohio has made drastic improvements to its overall WPR (work participation rates). … this has mainly been achieved through a reduction in caseload and a focus on the denominator of the WPR,” states the report.
Another report, published in September by the Center for Community Solutions, puts it this way: “Ohio has not met its federal program requirements for one-parent families by increasing the number of working adults. Rather, the work participation rate is improving because participants are being disenrolled.”
In other words, if there are fewer people getting assistance, it’s easier to make sure at least half are working.
“We’ve been calling attention to this for the past two years,” Frech said. “We’ve testified at the legislature; we’ve written letters to call attention to it. They’ve thrown over 100,000 people off the rolls.”
One way of doing this is by making it more difficult to get assistance, states the report by PCG. Some agencies required the completion of a work assignment before someone could be eligible for assistance. Frech calls this a “heartless” requirement, given that 80 percent of the people who need assistance don’t have a vehicle.
“I don’t want to imply that they never get thrown off here,” Frech said. “They certainly do if they refuse to work or never show up for work assignment. But we always have new people coming on. In general, we manage to hit the same 50 percent participation rate without throwing our caseload off.”
While caseloads around the state have dropped over the past two years, caseloads in Athens County have remained about the same for the past 10 years, Frech said.
“I feel proud of our staff and our clients, but I feel like we’re doing what we’re supposed to do,” Frech said. “We shouldn’t be exceptional for doing what we’re supposed to do.”
When asked how the agency is able to hit its requirements without focusing on the denominator, Frech said it has a lot to do with the attitude.
“When these folks come through door, we treat them with respect and understand that they want a job as much as we want them to have a job,” Frech said. “They rise to the occasion. It’s a lot harder to do this than it is to throw them off. These folks don’t disappear, just because you cut them off of assistance.”