On May 31, director Jack Frech testified before the Ohio State Senate on behalf of OWF recipients. Below is his testimony:
There are 130,000 children who must depend on the Ohio Works First (OWF) program. There is no state policy that is more intentionally harmful to children than the decision to force these children to live on an income that we know will not meet their basic needs.
An average family of two on OWF receives $336 in cash and $284 per month in food stamps. This combined income rises to only about half of the federal poverty level. Life for these families is a constant struggle to find enough food and to keep a roof over their heads. Over half of the OWF caseload is made up of 'child only' cases in which the grandparents or other relatives are the caretakers.
Why do I say intentional?
We know these families have no other resources. They must follow all of our eligibility rules and work requirements. We have more than ample funds to offer a decent level of benefits and yet we simply choose not to.
We spend a great deal of time and money to prove that these families are poor. With over $300 million dollars budgeted for entitlement administration and over $100 million a year spent specifically on eligibility determination, we are sure that these folks are poor. There is probably no other financial eligibility system that is as detailed or closely monitored than Ohio’s welfare programs.
Welfare was "reformed" ten years ago. It is complete with time limits and work requirements. It was supposed to satisfy our concerns that welfare be limited to only those who are "deserving." Those currently receiving OWF assistance must comply with all of the program rules.
The most obvious example of our intentional mistreatment of these children has been the way Ohio has dealt with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant. As the name implies, the first goal of the program is to support children in their own homes. Ohio has under spent its $1.14 billion TANF budget in almost every year for the past eight years. We accumulated the largest unspent balance of TANF funds in the nation with balances usually exceeding the $728 million federal annual TANF allocation. During this time, we have routinely spent only a third or less of the TANF budget on OWF cash assistance. Even with the Governor’s proposed $10 a month increase in benefits two years from now, the portion of TANF funds spent on cash assistance will drop to 22%.
Every year we devise a TANF spending plan that is supposed to spend down the balance. Most years, we simply don’t spend the money. Other years we have used the funds to replace state General Revenue Fund (GRF) dollars. This has relieved some of the budgeting stress on the administration and legislature at the expense of these poor children. It should be noted that supplanting of state and local funds is not permitted by federal rules and those same rules also limit the use of carry over TANF funds to cash assistance.
Governor Strickland, with the support of the Ohio House of Representatives, has chosen to spend the carry over TANF funds on an increase in childcare provider payments rather than addressing the critical problem of inadequate OWF benefits. All of the Governor’s plans for improved early childhood education and child care will have little effect on children living in families without sufficient food and with constant stress to pay for basic shelter costs and other necessities.
I could say that most people can’t imagine what life is like for these kids and their families. But the truth is, we spend a lot of effort to know exactly what life is like for them.
So I repeat: There is no other state policy that is more intentionally harmful to children than the low level of OWF cash benefits. It is time to take our foot off the necks of these poor families and their children.
We must provide a significant increase in OWF benefits.
--Jack Frech, Director