Karen Owens dreams of one day getting a job — perhaps becoming certified as a substance abuse counselor. But when a state welfare official told her she had to get a job immediately or risk losing her public assistance, her doctor repeatedly warned county officials she was not ready.
A litany of diagnosed mental illnesses, including post traumatic disorder from the 17 years she was homeless on the streets of Cleveland, as well as a life of drug and alcohol addiction that landed her in prison several times, meant she had trouble coping with the filing job the county found her last spring.
“I’d hold my ears, it would be so loud in there, it was just crazy. I had panic attacks, I cried. At the same time, I needed a way for my daughter to eat,” she says.
The experiment failed. Ms. Owens is back out of work and drawing money from Social Security. But it is a window into how many states have trimmed their welfare rolls to meet a goal laid out in a mid-2000s federal law.
Now, Ohio is one of three states still scrambling to meet that standard. It has to get at least half of all adults receiving assistance into a work activity or face $135 million in penalties later this fall. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) says it is making progress: Its welfare rolls are down 30 percent from last September.
The improving Ohio economy is one reason — unemployment fell to 7.2 percent in August, down from 8.8 percent a year before. But critics say Ohio is also simply catching up with what other states have done already: imposing harsher criteria to push many people off assistance and into jobs for which they are not prepared — or which are unlikely to be a lasting solution, such as picking up trash along highways.
In tight budget times, cities and counties are faced with tough decisions, they concede. But the trend raises questions about whether state welfare-to-work programs are working or whether they are simply making the math work.
“Part of the reason why kicking people off [welfare] is such an attractive way to meet the work rate [requirement] is you don’t have to do an actual better job to get people to work,” says Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington think tank. “You only just need to reduce the pool of people you’re serving and the [work] rate can go up.”
Work was central to the 1996 welfare reform law that helped improve the economic prosperity of impoverished households and reduce government dependency. While the legislation forced welfare recipients to find work, it left it up to the states to structure their programs as they saw fit, and Ohio was able to keep up.
But in 2007, the federal Deficit Reduction Act set the current, stricter criteria, and Ohio was among almost a dozen states that fell out of compliance. The law shifted the baseline for compliance from 1995 to 2005 — a much more difficult standard since many of the easiest welfare cases had been taken off the rolls in the intervening decade.
So many states turned to “draconian” methods to comply, and Ohio is only now following suit, says Ms. Schott.
For example, its new rules no longer consider earning a high school or college diploma as work and impose tighter limits on who can qualify for hardship extensions. Moreover, job training is often not part of the equation.
The constricted welfare rules incentivized officials to “actively dissuade people from staying on, or actually getting welfare,” says Robert DeFina, a sociologist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “So between stiffened work requirements, the bureaucratic response, and these other kinds of things people need to go through to verify their status, there’s been this sizable increase in people who have been eligible but do not take the payment, because it’s hard.”
ODJFS spokesman Benjamin Johnson acknowledges that “all the changes are changing the culture of the program.” But he adds that the state hired additional hearing officers to speed up the backlog of cases, and ultimately, it is up to the individual counties to “find meaningful work participation for all people enrolled.”
This is not the case in all states. Oregon, one of the other states out of compliance, does not leaves it up to the counties to decide what qualifies as work. Critics say the Ohio model sacrifices unified standards and effort in the name of local control.
In many instances, the latest push to reduce welfare rolls has hit those hardest to move off public assistance, such as the mentally ill and disabled.
Counties need to work better to create “meaningful assessments” of people to make more informed decisions about who can work, says Eugene King, director of the Ohio Poverty Law Center in Columbus.
But he acknowledges they have been strapped by budget cuts. If better funded, they could partner with local community colleges and libraries to create counseling opportunities.
“Too often our systems don’t recognize mental health as a significant health issue,” which can be compounded by the stressors of scraping by for basics like child care, transportation, or housing, Mr. King says. “If counties wanted to increase [the number of working welfare recipients], they would provide the counseling and the assistance to help people both find work and get placement for work and then maintain it.”