Ohio bill sparks questions over public benefits

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — A proposal contained in a midterm budget bill should have a goal of addressing the basic needs of Ohio residents, the human services director for Ohio's poorest county told state lawmakers Wednesday.

Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Jobs and Family Services, estimated that funding for public programs that provide food and cash assistance to Ohioans have been reduced more than $570 million from 2011 to January. That's left many residents struggling to buy food, clothing and shelter, he said.

"It is impossible to fully develop our workforce and thereby end poverty if any of our fellow Ohioans are hungry or homeless," Frech told an Ohio Senate committee.

The panel is examining a bill that would create an Office of Human Services Innovation within the state's social services agency. The office would recommend to the governor ways to revise incentives for public assistance programs, coordinate employment services and streamline eligibility for the programs.

Frech called the bill's goals admirable. But, he said, the new office's objective also should be to ensure "that the basic human needs are met for all Ohioans."

He included in his testimony a county-by-county chart showing reductions in cash benefits, through the Ohio Works First program, and in food stamps.

Frech said the drop in cash benefits amounted to about $166 million, while food assistance declined by more than $407 million.

A spokesman for the state's Department of Jobs and Family Services, which administers the programs, said a combination of changes at the federal level accounted for reductions to the food assistance program.

Spokesman Ben Johnson also said the number of people receiving cash benefits has fallen, which has led the state to pay out less money. He said the state is using those dollars to provide work support services for those in the cash benefits program. For instance, they can get money for gas, rent, bus tokens, uniforms and other needs.

Johnson said the shrinking caseload in the cash assistance program is partly due to the state's enforcement of federal welfare-to-work requirements, not enforced in previous years. However, Frech said the state could take a less punitive approach to meeting those requirements, adding that he believed its forced people off the program.

An improving economy also has played a role, Johnson said in an interview. "As people go back to work, they are no long eligible for and no longer need cash assistance."

The state's current two-year budget includes $150 million in new funding to support people on cash assistance who are trying to meet work requirements, along with providing incentive payments to help current and former cash assistance recipients find and keep jobs.

Johnson said the department does not believe that residents are receiving less assistance as a result of changes made by the state.

"We know that there's still work to be done, but it is not our intent in either case to reduce the caseload or to save money or to unnecessarily deprive someone of public assistance," Johnson said.