Jul 23, 2007

Reforming Welfare Reform

With the passage of the most recent budget, Ohio has remained in a pack with a great many other states who have chosen to allow their poorest children to struggle to meet their basic needs. Most states have done little or nothing to improve the benefit levels they provide for those families left on public assistance. One has to wonder when we, as a nation, are finally going to decide to stop punishing those people who must depend on the state for assistance. Oddly enough, expanding subsidies to those with higher incomes for child care or Medicaid is not considered as extending “welfare." Certainly those recipients, at the higher income levels, are not treated with the same disregard as we do the poorest of the poor families.

When Congress recently re-visited the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program through its reauthorization process, they apparently concluded that the biggest problem facing poor people was that too many who were sick, disabled, mentally ill or suffering with substance abuse, were getting off the hook from the work requirements of the TANF program and changed the requirements to limit the time allowed to address these issues. Apparently they also felt that they didn’t have enough paperwork changing hands between the state and federal government regarding documentation of work program participation. Obviously, they felt these two things were going to make life better for struggling families who live on TANF assistance.

Oddly enough, Congress seemed to pay little attention to the fact that caseloads have dropped dramatically, as much as two-thirds, and people currently on assistance are likely to fall into one of two categories. Nearly half of them are in what is known as “child only cases” in which a child on assistance is living with someone other then their natural parent, usually a grandparent, aunt or uncle. The second group would be those families who have significant barriers to employment as a result of low functioning levels, mental health problems, substance abuse, criminal records and a wide range of other serious challenges. More specifically, there are thousands of disabled parents who are waiting years for approval of SSI and must rely on TANF cash assistance in the meantime. It’s not such a stretch to understand that when you take a significant portion of the poverty population and basically filter out those that are employable, those left will have much more significant problems that must be addressed if or before they can become gainfully employed.

The states did implement a wide range of job training programs, expanded health care coverage and child care subsidies, all of which have been very helpful in removing families from cash assistance and providing support for them in their effort to survive working poverty. But nevertheless, this current welfare population, which has been relatively stable in number, has little choice but to endure their dependence on public assistance to meet their basic needs. The majority of these recipients are children.

It’s time for the federal government to take a serious look at those families left on assistance and consider the need to completely redesign the public assistance system. They need to address those families who are having the most difficulty in functioning in the workplace and perhaps, most of all must deal with the fact that there will always be some families dealing with insurmountable obstacles who must rely on public assistance to meet their basic needs. The fact that most states are providing assistance at only half of the poverty level can only amount to state-sponsored child abuse. Again we must remember, the primary recipients of cash assistance through the TANF program are children.

--Jack Frech, Director

Jul 17, 2007

Letter to the Editor

Our first guest blogger is Kim Hobbs, a staff member at the Work Station. She sent in this Letter to the Editor to the Athens News. It was published Monday, July 16. We welcome your comments!

To the Editor:

Poverty definitely looks different today than it did when I was growing up. We were poor but I didn’t realize it. While we had toys, we spent the majority of our time outside creating our own “live” roll playing games, building forts out of sheets, having plays for the parents in our garage, and playing countless games of hopscotch on the sidewalk. These activities cost next to nothing. I did not have a TV in my room (remember having only three stations to choose from?), an iPod, a cell phone, Playstation, etc. A once a year trip to Geauga Lake and an occasional meal out at The Ground Round were luxuries. Today, most kids would be devastated to live this way. Believe me, I am as guilty if not guiltier than the next at spoiling my kids. We need to re-think our lifestyles and how we are bringing up our children.

Poverty is growing. Unfortunately, it is becoming a permanent part of our everyday structure. Food banks can’t keep up with the demand. Food stamp use has increased and while I applaud this assistance, it has also aided in creation a new “health hazard” for poverty stricken families. Obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes have immensely increased over the years. Why? If a family of five has to budget $300 a month for food, how is it spent? Buying lean cuts of meat? Fresh vegetables? Whole grain breads? No: most opt to stretch their dollar. A package of hot dogs, buns, bag of chips, and a can of vegetables for dinner could cost a family of five approximately $4. It's cheap and quick but the salt, fat and lack of nutrition in a meal like this can be really detrimental to a family when it's the only thing they eat. Most wages are too low to provide adequately for a family and lead a normal economic lifestyle.

There seems to be a hardening attitude from people towards the poor. People are now tending to blame the poor for their situations. While I agree some take advantage of the system, I can guarantee you that the poor want nothing more than to change their situation. DJFS has made it harder to sit at home and collect the “welfare” check. Today, most recipients must perform some type of job training or labor in order for them to maintain their benefits. This is providing the unskilled with new founded skills to take with them to new jobs or education.

While I don’t think poverty can be eliminated, it can be reduced. As parents, we should all get back to the basics with our children. We need to teach them the importance of a good education and good family values. It is so much easier to agree with your kids when they ask for something that they don’t need than to say no and create an argument. As employers, we need provide wages and benefits to our employees that they can live on. As consumers, we should purchase good and services locally and reinvest in the local economy.

I truly believe that as a team we can work towards a goal of reducing poverty.

Kim Hobbs
Work Inforcement Act Social Program Coordinator

For some recent news/opinion in the Athens News regarding poverty and food, check out these articles:

Concerned about the rising cost of food? You better get used to it by Gwynne Dyer (Pub. 7/12)

Letter: Step into the shoes of someone who's poor to really understand by Missy Cangiamilla (Pub. 7/12)

Jul 5, 2007

Squeezing Blood from a Turnip, Part Two

As a follow up to the June 25 post, here's a little more information about businesses that target low-income families and potential alternatives that can save a lot of money. (For a recap of how we got on this topic, check out this Business Week article.)

Similar to a payday loan, instant tax returns from tax preparation companies can be an enticing and quick way to get back money. Low-income workers are often entitled to the Earned Income Tax Credit and can get a pretty substantial amount of money back—but if they get their refunds instantly rather than waiting a week or two, they can incur substantial fees. One available alternative for people who just need to file simple 1040 forms is the Athens Fast & Free Tax Assistance Center, operated by Job & Family Services. All Athens County residents, no matter their income, can get their taxes done for free from this service. With E-Filing, returns come back in as little as a week—and you get your ENTIRE return, with no fees deducted.

Another need that often arises in low-income families is for furniture and appliances. A $700 refrigerator is almost always out of the question when income barely covers rent and food, so paying $17.99 a week for a Hotspot refrigerator from Rent-2-Own seems like the only reasonable measure. Compare the refrigerator's posted retail price of $709.99 the total 78 weeks of $17.99 payments you'll make, though, and it's not so much of a deal: $1403.22. That's just under double what that refrigerator is worth.

Rent-2-Own's slogan is "Because we should all have nice stuff." This clearly encourages those who can least afford it to live beyond their means. Yes, in an ideal world, it would be great if we could all have leather recliners and dishwashers—but in the real world, where we don't all even have food on the table every night, it's ludicrous to encourage people to buy what they really can't afford.

The alternatives aren't always easy, but that's the way life is for low-income families. Thrift stores such as ReUse Industries and New to You are often inundated with furniture—especially futons, after the students move out at the beginning of summer. It may not be a pine bunk bed, but it's somewhere for your kids to sleep that doesn't come with the instability of a potential repossession if you can't pay the eight bucks in week 43 of your payment plan. Even local charitable organizations like Good Works offer—with limited resources, nevertheless—the chance for people to volunteer in exchange for furniture and appliances.

Computers are another thing people buy on payment plans at rental stores. Certainly an important tool for homework, job searching and other household uses in the modern age, computers don't come cheap. [Please see comments for a correction regarding this eligibility information. Thanks!]Job & Family Services offers FREE computers, to below households with children at or below 200% of the poverty level and be TANF eligible, which can also mean cooperating with CSEA or pregnant, along with training and a year's internet connection. Since its founding in 2001, the program has provided more than 2,000 computers to local households.

The BW article describes the increasing struggle low-income families are experiencing more and more across the country, and Athens certainly isn't immune from this problem. There are few easy answers for alleviating this problem, but it starts with a need for financial literacy and an increased awareness of just what strings are attached to seemingly great offers.

Jul 2, 2007

State Legislature Approves Ohio's Budget

With a nearly unanimous vote of approval, the Ohio legislature passed Governor Strickland's proposed budget for FY2008-2009. (State Rep. Diana Fessler, R-New Carlisle, was the only legislator to vote against the budget.)

Focusing on health care, education and a few other key issues, the new budget will certainly have a major impact at both the state and county levels for the Department of Job and Family Services as well as our clients.

Stay tuned for highlights of the budget as it relates to our department and those we serve!

In the meantime, here are a few news articles to peruse:
Akron Beacon Journal

Coshocton Tribune

Chillicothe Gazette