Jun 25, 2007

Squeezing Blood from a Turnip

In Athens as nationwide, companies are finding ways to squeeze blood from a turnip.

Previous entries have pretty thoroughly driven home the point that low-income families have to make a lot of difficult decisions on how to spend their money. This constant position of never adequately meeting all of a family’s needs, often coupled with inadequate financial literacy, can make a tough situation increasingly worse. Unfortunately, when money runs out before the next paycheck or paying eight bucks a week for a children’s bunk bed seems the only reasonable solution, there are many companies that are all too eager to help low-income families part with their money.

An interesting article in the May 21 issue of Business Week describes a number of types of companies that target low-income consumers, including payday lenders, car dealerships that offer credit to anyone, rent-to-own furniture and appliance stores, and high-interest credit card companies. Credit is becoming easier and easier to obtain, but it often comes with interest rates that at times might as well demand your firstborn child as part of the payback.

Payday Lenders
In an area with such high poverty rates as Athens County, it really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many companies fall into these categories. On East State Street alone, there are three payday lenders and two rent-to-own furniture and appliance stores (a fourth payday lender is on Columbus Road.)

Of course, payday lenders and rent-to-own stores aren't charities and shouldn't be expected to operate as charities. And sometimes, unexpected expenses arise that require people living paycheck-to-paycheck to resort to companies like this—indeed, a payday loan might be a lifesaver once in awhile. But frequent use of services like this can turn those who have very little money into those who have a great deal of debt. "Unsophisticated" consumers, as the Business Week article refers to them, might not understand interest rates or realize just how much debt they are incurring.

For the purpose of this example, take local payday lender Advance America Cash Advance, located at 971 E. State St. The company's online fee schedule indicates that if you borrow money from them, you're going to pay about 15 percent in fees. If you borrow $250, you cut the company a check for $287.50. To their credit, the company's Web site. explains that this shouldn't become a habit:

"Since a payday advance is a short-term solution to an immediate need, it is not intended for repeated use in carrying an individual from payday to payday. When an immediate need arises, we're here to help. But a payday advance is not a long-term solution for ongoing budget management. Repeated or frequent use can create serious financial hardships."

That's where financial literacy and common sense should come in on the part of the consumer, but circumstance doesn't always allow for that. And taking $37 out of an already meager paycheck every week just because you can't afford to wait for it can cost you substantially.

...Stay tuned for: Tax preparation and rent-to-own appliances and furniture!

Jun 21, 2007

Budget Blues: Shortcomings of Ohio's proposed budget

The new state budget includes some program expansions and improvements that will be very beneficial to struggling Ohio families. An increase in the income eligibility for Medicaid to 300 percent of the Federal Poverty Level will help thousands of uninsured children. An increase in child care provider payments will help many deserving child care providers. Expanding child care subsidies and early learning programs for families up to 200 percent of the poverty level will be a great benefit for children and their parents. Subsidies for food banks, home energy assistance and a variety of special earmarked programs will provide valuable resources for low-income Ohioans. With the support of the governor and the General Assembly, life will be a little better for many Ohioans.

But there is another side. Who lost so these programs could grow? Unfortunately, lawmakers have chosen to help the needy at the expense of the even more needy. While expanding eligibility for Medicaid for children up to 300 percent of poverty, the General Assembly rejected the governor's proposal to restore eligibility for the parents of children between 90 percent and 100 percent of the Federal Poverty Level. While they'll offer assistance to children in families making more than $50,000 a year, they deny help to parents making less than $15,000. I'm not sure why lawmakers imagined that the children in families below the poverty level don't suffer when parents can't get health care or are forced to pay out of pocket and face destitution.

All of the child care and other program expansions were funded out of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families block grant. While they are all beneficial, these expansions do not resolve the most severe problems that the lowest income families face. Families who must rely on TANF cash assistance are forced to live on an income of only 50 percent of the FPL. Ohio has consistently chosen to provide a grossly inadequate benefit level despite a wealth of available TANF funds. The first priority for the use of TANF funds must be to meet the basic needs for our poorest children--and they are not doing that. Ohio's poorest families will pay so those with more resources can benefit.

My concern is not whether the program expansions are needed or worthy. They are. However, it seems that the less fortunate have been forced to continue to suffer in order to pay for these expansions. Unfortunately, this decision was politically easier than asking those who are already comfortable to sacrifice more.

Jun 20, 2007

Thanks, athensi!

The Job & Family Services blog has just been added to a great online resource for local news, both from traditional news sources like the Messenger, as well as a number of other bloggers. Check it out! Athensi.com.

We haven't gotten much of a response regarding food stamps and what you'd buy with them yet, but we'd still love to hear from you. Also, if you're a volunteer or employee at any food banks or other organizations that provide free food to low income families, is the article from the Athens News pretty accurate regarding increased demands? Is it harder over the summer with children home from school? It would be a real eye-opener to hear from people that experience it every day.

One last quick note regarding free food is that the Athens County libraries will be serving free meals to children under 18 as well as adults with mental and physical disabilities all summer long. Meals will be provided at Glouster, Nelsonville, Chauncey and Coolville branches. The announcement in the Messenger last Wednesday didn't go into much detail, but if you want more information, click here for the library's contact information.

Jun 19, 2007

Another food pantry accepting donations...

Our sincerest apologies for overlooking another food pantry that would be grateful for your donations as we continue to explore the issue of hunger among Athens County's poorest folks:

Athens County Food Pantry

This pantry provides food boxes and Seamans vouchers to families who call the Athens County Foodline (1-800-338-4484), as described in our first post about food stamps. They're always in need of food and financial donations, so call the number listed above if you'd like to make either!

Jun 14, 2007

The Food Stamp Challenge—Part 2

Until significant changes are made, those in need will have to continue to rely on a strained support system and find whatever resources they can to supplement the $25 per week. Below is a sample of what someone might choose to buy, and along with that, here’s a challenge: the next time you’re grocery shopping, figure out how you would spend $25 to feed yourself for a week and send us the list with prices. (Post them in comments.) While you’re doing that, find a couple things you’d want to eat that you wouldn’t be able to afford on this hypothetical list, buy them and drop them off at a food bank. They’ll be much needed and much appreciated.

For $25, a week of (not necessarily balanced, or particularly filling) meals:
*Note—these prices were quoted at Athens’ local Aldi store on June 12. As their Web site states: "Aldi is an international retailer specializing in a limited assortment of private label, high-quality products at the lowest possible prices."

-Bologna:$.99 for 16 servings
-Canned chicken breast: $1.69 for 4 servings
-Canned chicken broth: $1.17 for 3 cans

-Skim milk: $2.61 for 1 gallon/16 servings
-American cheese slices: $.79 for 12 slices
-Eggs: $.89 for 12
-Margarine: $1.29 for 3 lbs

-White bread: $.49 for 22 slices
-Tortillas: $.89 for 36
-Rice: $.99 for 30 servings
-Potatoes: $1.99 for 10 lbs./about 20 potatoes
-Egg noodles: $.69 for 6 servings
-Quick oats: $1.49 for 30 servings
-Macaroni and cheese: $.58 for two boxes

-Dry pinto beans: $1.19 for 25 servings
-Onions: $1.29 for about 5
-Bananas: $.35 for about 6
-Fresh carrots: $.49 for 5 servings
-Canned green beans: $.78 for 2 cans, 2 servings each
-Canned corn: $.78 for 2 cans, 2 servings each
-Canned carrots: $.78 for 2 cans, 2 servings each

-Salt: $.33 for one canister
-Garlic powder: $.99
-Ketchup: $.99

Total: $24.52

Here is a list of local food pantries that accept donations: (They also accept monetary donations to buy what is most needed.)

HAPCAP Southeast Ohio Regional Food Center
1005 C.I.C. Drive
Logan, OH 43138
(740) 385-6813

Friends & Neighbors Community Food Center
2808 Sixth Street
Coolville, OH 45723
(740) 667-0684

Glouster Community Center Food Pantry
3 Front Street
Glouster, OH 45732
(740) 767-3829

Kilvert Community Center Food Pantry
21120 McGraw Rd.
Stewart, OH 45778

Salvation Army Food Pantry
1 Townsend Place
Athens, OH 45701
(740) 593-7082

The Nelsonville Food Cupboard
83 West Washington Street
Nelsonville, OH 45764
(740) 753-3810

Let us know what you would buy with $25/week, or if you receive Food Stamps, what you do buy!

Jun 13, 2007

The Food Stamp Challenge—Part 1

Beginning the week of May 15, four members of Congress, including Ohio’s Representative Tim Ryan (D), learned what it was like to try to survive on food stamps for a week. (Read a Washington Post article about this experience.)

The four had $21 each, which they spent at a Safeway near Washington, D.C. They stuck to purchases such as bread, pasta, spaghetti sauce, and peanut butter and jelly. An eye-opener for these lawmakers as they introduced legislation to increase the food stamp budget in the upcoming Farm Bill, this week of poor nutrition and frequent hunger pangs certainly drew attention to the growing problem of food-stamp inadequacy. (Tim Ryan’s blog,Rep. Jim McGovern’s (D-Mass.) blog.

Nationally, according to the Washington Post article, about 26 million Americans receive food stamps. Locally, here’s what that translates into for Athens County:

Last year (FY2006: July 2005 through June 2006):
-An average of 6,614 people per month received food stamps.
-Their average allotted spending amount was $99.82 per month, which is about $25 per week.
-Food Stamp recipients don’t actually get Food Stamps anymore. The Ohio Direction Card, which works like a debit card, has replaced food stamps and removed some of the stigma attached to getting public assistance. They can be used at most local grocery stores.

Other food stamps considerations:
-ONLY food is allowed to be purchased with food stamps. Some examples of excluded items (imagine living without them): toilet paper, napkins, tissue, sanitary supplies, soap, shampoo, dishwashing soap, laundry supplies, diapers.
-Because $25 per week is often inadequate to feed a family member, families often must turn to food pantries to get supplemental food. Job & Family Services operates an Emergency Food Line in conjunction with the Athens County Food Pantry Board that allows qualifying families to receive one box of food along with a few dollars per person in food vouchers every 90 days. ($10 for a family of one to three, $20 for a family of four to six, and $30 for a family of seven or more.)

A growing trend continues to drive home the point that Food Stamps scarcely provide families with their basic needs. A "http://athensnews.com/index.php?action=viewarticle§ion=news&story_id=28408" target="_blank">recent article in the Athens News reported that local food pantries are running low on provisions to hand out as demand increases.

Four members of Congress took a weeklong challenge to get an idea of what it’s like to live on Food Stamps. It was certainly an admirable attempt to empathize with their constituents and understand what changes must be made, but the issues surrounding hunger in America are far from over.

Since their inception, Food Stamps have been intended to provide only 75 percent of the necessary food to individuals, based on the Thrifty Food Plan set by the USDA; they are expected to pay out-of-pocket for the other 25 percent. However, low income eligibility requirements to qualify for Food Stamp benefits pretty much guarantee that these people have no other resources to turn to. This is a catch-22 that needs to be addressed, because it is leaving millions of Americans—including children—hungry and undernourished.

Jun 12, 2007

Testimony Before the State Senate

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

Jun 7, 2007

A big hole in the safety net: Ohio’s TANF funding, Part 7

The final words on this topic belong to the people on the receiving end of cash assistance, because it is their lives that this meager investment affects to such a great extent. In March, we surveyed recipients of OWF and asked them what they’d do if they could get an extra $100 a month in TANF funds. (A bill introduced by State Representative Jimmy Stewart (R-92) last year would have provided this additional assistance; it was dismissed.) We heard back from dozens of recipients; excerpts from some of the most telling responses are below:

“Right now we get $410 a month and the bank takes $5 out to cash it and $400 goes straight to my landlord. So my family is left with $5.”

“$100 a month doesn’t seem like much to very many people. It does to my family and myself...I could have good roofing nails put in my roof to replace the old used ones, so maybe my roof wouldn’t leak as often. I could save and maybe have struts put on my car, then it won’t scare me when the kids ride with me. $100 could do a lot to make our lives a little nicer and even safer.”

“A trip to the zoo wouldn’t be out of the question. It’s not much fun telling your child maybe next month we’ll be able to afford it, knowing that we won’t.”

“We have to plan only the most necessary trips to town or school in our car. We have to wash clothes by hand in the bathtub instead of going to the Laundromat. I’m always scared that I’m not going to be able to keep the electricity on. My son is a freshman in high school and he’s an excellent student with perfect attendance. It breaks my heart when he feels my despair and I wish that life could be a little more fun for him.”

“My husband is disabled and I’m medically not allowed to work. With the amount of money that we get from the state, I can’t pay all of the bills. With rent, water, trash, gas, phone, electric and car insurance, we come about $200 short every month. And that doesn’t include the extra food that we have to buy with cash because the food stamps aren’t enough to feed four people fully.”

“I face utility shutoff every month. I receive $336 a month; my rent is $300 and that is the cheapest I can find. That only leaves me $36 to pay utilities and buy diapers for my two-year-old son.”

“If I had another $100 dollars I could at least fully pay my rent. My rent is $425 a month and OWF sends me $410. My rent does not include utilities and I have two small children, ages 3 and 3 months. My car needs fixed and I can’t afford a babysitter. I struggle every month, thinking that month my kids and I may not have a roof over our heads. The stress of no money makes it hard to see the little things in live anymore.”

“We are raising our three granddaughters on what my husband gets from SSI and the $410 from OWF. $100 may not seem like a lot, but it would help to get the girls clothes and shoes when they need them.”

“I struggle with keeping my baby in diapers and having enough money for bills and rent. My baby goes without diapers sometimes because I have to pay my rent and bills so I’m not homeless with four children.”

“I could buy more healthy food for my children.”

“To some people $100 is nothing. My family struggles every day to pay bills, put food on the table and the extra money would help. I have a child in kindergarten who always needs something for school. Her father works but doesn’t make enough to support a family our size. My kids are always in need of something and I hope you realize how this would help our families and our kids. I feel bad for receiving any kind of help from welfare but we do try to provide—everyone has a hard time once in awhile. Please, don’t let the children go without. Help us get by a little better.”

Jun 5, 2007

A big hole in the safety net: Ohio’s TANF funding, Part 6

The proposed budget

The Administration has indicated that their rationale for not providing a decent increase in the level of public assistance is that OWF children will be receiving other services that will somehow help compensate for the fact that they do not have enough money to meet their basic needs. A review of the governor’s budget proposal would indicate that there are several areas in which families may receive some additional help.

The largest increase in the governor’s budget for TANF is going to a fee increase for child care providers. They will receive an increase of 11 percent, beginning this May. This will increase the average payment per child from approximately $400 to about $440 a month. Only about 25 percent of OWF children receive child care assistance. Those assistance payments are made directly to the child care provider and not to the OWF family. While increasing these provider fees may be very well warranted, it does not help OWF families pay their bills and put food on the table.

The governor’s budget also calls for expansions of the Early Learning Initiative (ELI) and other child development activities. All of these activities are already available to OWF families; however, none of these programs provides any assistance to help these families meet their basic needs. Though these development activities can potentially do a lot of good, participation levels are low. In the face of possible eviction, empty dinner plates and spotty employment, it is difficult for families to find the time or energy to focus on learning activities. Recent studies regarding the long-term effects of child care on the developmental abilities of children have determined that the quality of life within the family is a more significant determinant of success for children’s development than is child care or any other activity.

Another issue that has been raised regarding the potential increase in OWF benefits is “sustainability.” There is no doubt that the TANF block grant is a fixed, limited amount of money. Even with the huge unspent balance of funds(about $403 million was unobligated before the new budget proposal), there is obviously a finite limit on how many activities can be funded through this source. It is ironic that the issue of sustainability seems to be raised more often with issues such as providing direct cash assistance to families than it does for the wide range of other services funded through TANF dollars.

In reality, cash assistance accounts for only about 25 percent of all TANF funding, despite the fact that meeting basic human needs should be the first priority for these funds. There must be a serious discussion about what the priorities for TANF funding should be as we move forward, and it should involve a discussion of the full range of services currently funded.

There is no less guarantee of “sustainability” for kinship care or child care than there is for cash assistance. For the past 30 years, while many social services programs have come and gone, we have always provided cash assistance to low-income families (albeit at an inadequate level.) It is also true that during that entire 30-year span, and in the face of serious budget challenges, no governor or general assembly has ever actually cut the level of benefits for the assistance being provided through the OWF or the former Aid to Dependent Children (ADC) program. It is highly unlikely that cash assistance benefits would be cut in the future. In fact, it is far more likely that it would be some of the other wide range of TANF-funded services that would be in jeopardy. Perhaps this is why there has been so little support throughout the human services community for an increase in public assistance benefits. Despite a lack of support, the obvious fact is that an increase in cash assistance is necessary and would improve the lives of Ohio’s neediest children.

--Jack Frech, Director

Jun 1, 2007

Response to Athens TANF Question

In response to a question sent by one of our subscribers, here are the figures for Athens County's OWF (Ohio Works First) recipients for the same time period, December 2006: (The original post that originated this question.)

(Click on the table to view it larger.)

As you can see, the majority of OWF cases in Athens county are actually both Adult and Child Cases. Our Child-Only cases are only 32 percent of our total caseload, compared to the state average of about 52 percent.

Thanks for your question, and keep them coming!

A big hole in the safety net: Ohio’s TANF funding, Part 5

Additional benefits that OWF families may receive

Most OWF families are also eligible to receive Medicaid and Food Stamps. County Job and Family Services offices offer a wide variety of emergency and employment support assistance through the Prevention, Retention and Contingency (PRC) program, based on each county’s individualized plan.

Fewer than 7 percent of OWF families receive subsidized housing assistance.

Families with children under the age of five and pregnant women may receive help through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. The average benefit is $34 per month and goes toward nutritious food.

The Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) offers financial aid for heating costs. The average benefit is $296 per heating season. The Percentage of Income Payment Plan (PIPP) offers low income consumers of regulated utilities an extended payment plan to reduce the high cost of energy during the heating season. There is no subsidy in the program and low income families participating are over $530 million in debt to utility companies in electrical services alone.

There are a number of local services such as food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters intended to provide help in “emergency” situations. Unfortunately, many OWF and working poor families have been forced to rely on them on a regular, recurring basis. Only about 25 percent of OWF families receive child care services. While beneficial, these services can’t bridge the gap between OWF benefit levels and the basic needs of these families.

--Jack Frech