Feb 28, 2008

Feb 27, 2008

Don’t Turn Away, Ohio

It is uncomfortable to face up to, but in our efforts to turn around Ohio, we cannot continue to turn away from our communities’ most severe problems and from the poorest of the poor among us. Families and individuals dealing with serious financial issues; problems caused by domestic violence; addiction or mental health problems are unfortunate realities that don’t go away even if they are ignored. Our goal must be to help people through these situations. While challenging even in the best of times, recent failures by the state and federal governments have made accomplishing this goal significantly more difficult. The failure on the part of government to ensure that all families have sufficient income to meet their basic human needs of food, clothing, and shelter has caused holes in the financial safety net to steadily worsen over the years. Our government’s failure to prioritize the needs of the poorest of the poor is causing increased hardships among those least suited to survive them.

Simultaneously, other challenges facing many of these same families are growing worse as a result of insufficient support for basic child welfare, mental health and substance abuse programs. These issues are bound together. It is virtually impossible to resolve many of the behavioral health issues families are facing when they must focus all of their energy on simply surviving. We must place a greater priority on financial resources for the poorest of the poor. We understand that, in these difficult economic times, many working poor families are struggling and need assistance. We certainly support all efforts to provide as much as we possibly can to aid these families. But we feel very strongly that support should not come at the expense of those who are still even poorer and have even fewer services available.

Therefore, we are calling on the Governor and the Ohio General Assembly to support the following:

• Public assistance benefits offered through the Ohio Works First program should be increased by $100 per month as previously proposed by Representative Jimmy Stewart. Currently, the average family receives a combined income of cash and Food Stamps at roughly 50% of the poverty level.

• Health care services must be available to all adults who earn less than 100% of the federal poverty level. Individuals who are not eligible for Medicaid lack the capacity to provide themselves with essential health care and, as a result, cause serious problems that affect the rest of the family, including their children.

• Mental health and substance abuse services must be available to all adults and children below the poverty level. Families dealing with these issues often have their treatment jeopardized by a lack of basic human needs. Personal and financial recovery must proceed together.

• The disability determination process must be fixed. With two separate systems (Medicaid and Social Security) to navigate, disabled people waste many months or years trying to get the help they need. Meanwhile, they suffer without much needed health care and income.

The failure of Ohio to deal effectively with these issues has created serious and unnecessary hardships for poor families and individuals. We have created an overwhelming demand for emergency food and housing services which continues to grow. Untreated mental health and substance abuse problems decimate already poor families. The ability of these individuals to obtain or retain employment is greatly challenged by inadequate health and behavioral health services.

We call upon the President and Congress to address the federal issues related to this problem:

• Food Stamp benefits are too low. Food Stamp benefits must be increased to meet 100% of the nutritional needs of poor families and the minimum benefit level should increase from $10 to $100 a month. Currently, Food Stamps are intended to provide about 75% of a family's nutritional needs. The presumption is that people could make up the difference with their cash. With stagnant income levels for the poor and the increased cost of living, this is not possible. The end result overwhelms our food pantries and soup kitchens.

• Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits are too low and therefore need to be increased substantially. SSI payments for the elderly and disabled in Ohio average $430 a month or about 55% of the federal poverty level. The maximum payment is $637 per month or 75% of the federal poverty level. These people cannot work, yet we force them to live with the constant struggle to meet their basic needs.

We call upon our state and federal elected representatives to not turn away from these serious problems. We must take immediate action. This is already a crisis for the people affected by these issues.

$100 a Month OWF Grant Increase
There are 125,000 children who depend on the Ohio Works First TANF-funded cash assistance program. These families are very poor. We spend a great deal of money, time and effort through our local County Department of Job and Family Services offices to prove that families receiving OWF assistance don’t have other resources and comply with all program work requirements and time limits. After all this, we give them only about half of the money we know they need to live on. There is no doubt that this has caused many hardships for these children and their families.

We provide a typical OWF family with about $320 a month in cash and $280 in Food Stamps. This does not meet their basic needs. Ohio has developed the largest balance of unspent TANF funds in the nation because we are unwilling to provide a decent level of assistance for these kids.
The Governor’s budget calls for a “cost of living adjustment” in January of 2009, at a cost of $4.6 million. For a family of three, this equates to roughly a 3% increase, or about $10 a month. These children will clearly be much worse off in a year than they are now. Although the Governor’s budget does a lot to help children, it does not help our poorest children.

Health Care for All Adults below the Poverty Level
Much has been said during recent years about the state of health care and its availability. Some feel health care is a basic need and should be universally available regardless of socioeconomic status. Others disagree, calling such an approach “socialized medicine,” thus politicizing the process and making the issue a heated debate. No matter which side of that ideological fence one chooses, it is undeniable that those with health insurance, and thus access to health care, live a different lifestyle that those without it. Many Americans are facing tough choices about whether to take medicine that enables them to live in better health or to feed their families. The basic medical procedures that many of us take for granted are being denied to people who do not have insurance, as health care facilities often will not even attend to an uninsured patient. Additionally, the poor cannot afford to practice preventive medicine. Medicaid and Medicare help children, the elderly and those who are disabled. The OWF program provides health care for some adults, but many poor parents and other adults are not eligible for Medicaid and can’t afford health services.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services for All Poor Adults
We must increase access to mental health and substance abuse services for all adults who need services and live below the federal poverty level. With state funding cuts and the increased need to provide local funds for Medicaid match, services to non-Medicaid adults are extremely limited. Medicaid primarily serves elderly, disabled or child clients. Other poor adults are covered only in very limited circumstances. As a result, many are not eligible for Medicaid funded behavioral health services.

This creates a dual challenge to recovery and treatment. Much needed counseling or support services are limited or not available and the adult is left struggling with the day-to-day challenge of meeting their basic human needs.

The impact of untreated mental health or substance abuse issues goes far beyond the individual to affect the whole family and community in general. The state must fund adequate behavioral health services for everyone below the poverty level.

Social Security Disability and SSI Denials
We must reform the disability determination process. The majority of applicants for Social Security Disability or SSI are denied at the time of their initial application. Although 60% of all applicants who appeal an initially denied claim are eventually approved for disability benefits, the 1.5-2.5 year process can have devastating affects on them and their families. Not only are their financial futures in jeopardy, but so is there personal health. Despite their best efforts, they are unable to meet the basic needs of their families.

Waiting more than a year to receive benefits puts an additional strain on already hurting families. The number of backlogged cases is continuing to rise. Unless this issue is addressed, disabled workers who have paid into a system they thought they could depend on will continue to be let down, and the wait will only continue to grow.

Many people have lost their homes, and some their lives, while waiting to receive benefits. These people put their faith into a system that was supposed to help. The system has failed them and could fail thousands more if immediate, effective changes are not made. We must take adequate steps to reduce the number of initially denied applicants.

Overlooking the Basics
Policymakers have cited the importance of early childhood intervention in preparing children for a successful education. Numerous studies have documented the importance of providing children with a variety of education, childcare and parenting programs to help accomplish this goal. Unfortunately, the most important factor in promoting a child’s readiness and success in school is often overlooked or ignored: a safe, stable and secure family.

Programs that address education and child care will not work for families or children who do not have their basic needs met first. Children who are facing continual chaotic or stressful lives due to extreme poverty in their families will not thrive no matter how much their school or daycare improves. By having policies that assure that hundreds of thousands of children will spend time in households that can’t meet their basic needs, we are undermining the potential success of our early childhood intervention efforts.

We must provide sufficient benefits through our safety net programs to meet all basic needs for these families. Below are comments from studies on child care, school readiness and brain development. They all emphasize the prime importance of a safe, secure, and stable family as a prerequisite for success:

“The major providers of early childhood experience are parents. Programs to support and strengthen the family will increase the likelihood of optimal childhood experiences.”

Child Trauma Academy. http://www.childtrauma.org/. How Experiences in Early Childhood Create a Healthy Society.

“In marked contrast to the child-care effects just described, parenting quality significantly predicted all the developmental outcomes and much more strongly than did any of the child-care predictors.”

Belsky, Jay; Vandell, Deborah Lowe; Burchinal, Margaret; Clarke-Stewart, K. Alison; McCartney, Kathleen; Owen, Margaret Tresch. The NICHD Early Child Care Research Network (2007). Are There Long-Term Effects of Early Child Care? Child Development, March/April 2007, Volume 78, Number 2, pages 693.

“The family plays the most important role in a young child’s life. Public policies should seek to support families in this role and to expand parents’ options for the care, health, and education of their children.”

National Governors Association. Final Report of the NGA Task Force on School Readiness. Building the Foundation for Bright Futures, page 1. Found at: http://www.nga.org/Files/pdf/0501TaskForceReadiness.pdf, last accessed January 3, 2008.

“Responsibility for school readiness lies not with children, but with the adults who care for them and the systems that support them. Public policies should seek to provide comprehensive information, resources, and support to all who are responsible for children’s development.”

National Governors Association. Final Report of the NGA Task Force on School Readiness. Building the Foundation for Bright Futures, page 1. Found at: http://www.nga.org/Files/pdf/0501TaskForceReadiness.pdf, last accessed January 3, 2008.

“The NGA Task Force on School Readiness believes that the family plays the most important role in a young child’s life. Parents have the primary responsibility for nurturing, teaching, and providing for their children. It is the relationship between parent and child that is the most critical for the positive development of children. Children need supportive, nurturing environments. However, the new economy has brought changes in the workforce and in family life. These changes are causing financial, physical, and emotional stresses in families, particularly low-income families… Consequently, the role of parents and the condition of families should be central concerns for policymakers interested in promoting school readiness.”

National Governors Association. Final Report of the NGA Task Force on School Readiness. Building the Foundation for Bright Futures, page 7. Found at: http://www.nga.org/Files/pdf/0501TaskForceReadiness.pdf, last accessed January 3, 2008.

“Parents play a primary role in the development of their children. Children who experience sensitive, responsive care from a parent perform better academically and emotionally in the early elementary years. At the same time, not surprisingly, financial and emotional stresses negatively impact parents’ well-being and adversely affect their attentiveness and sensitivity to their children. For children who receive most of their care from a parent in the home, it seems clear that providing families with the resources, information, and tools they need is an appropriate approach for promoting school readiness.”

National Governors Association. Final Report of the NGA Task Force on School Readiness. Building the Foundation for Bright Futures, page 13. Found at: http://www.nga.org/Files/pdf/0501TaskForceReadiness.pdf, last accessed January 3, 2008.

The above recommendations are endorsed by the following:

Athens-Hocking-Vinton 317 Board
Earl Cecil, Executive Director

Athens County Job and Family Services
Jack Frech, Director

Athens County Children Services
Andrea Reik, Director

Hocking County Job and Family Services
Robert Smith, Director
350 State Route 664 North
P.O. Box 548
Logan, Ohio 43138-0548

Hocking County Children Services
Julie Mogavero, Director
93 West Hunter Street
Logan, Ohio 43138

Vinton County Job and Family Services & Children Services
Jody Walker, Director
30975 Industry Park Drive
McArthur, Ohio 45651

Feb 1, 2008

Fast & Free Tax Center

Yes, it’s that time of year again: Tax filing season. Anyone who had earned and even some unearned income last year will need to file a 2007 income tax return, or as the IRS calls it, a 1040.

Unfortunately, there are professional tax preparation companies that take advantage of low-income citizens. Many low-income taxpayers are so eager to get their returns that they turn to "refund anticipation loans," pay stub prep, and new this year, prepaid credit cards, so that they do not have to wait to receive their refunds. These services attract those who can least afford them, promising to put money in their pockets the same day they file a return. Sadly, these services come at a steep price.

Refund anticipations loans (RALs) are just that, they are a loan. Taxpayers receives their anticipated refund amount the same day that they file. However, they are not only charged the cost of preparing the return, but are also charged with incredibly high interest rates, ranging from 40 percent to more than 100 percent.

The new prepaid credit card option is really just a refund anticipation loan disguised as a credit card. Users are charged a fee to take cash out at banks and ATMs, in addition to the fees charged to prepare the return.

Pay stub prep is another approach that many companies use to speed up the income tax process. This occurs when they take your last pay stub of the year and prepare your taxes from it. However, this method is never a good idea, as it can often result in inaccurate results leading to the chance of being audited by the IRS.

A free alternative to these high cost, risky refund approaches is the Athens County Fast and Free Tax Assistance Center. IRS-certified volunteers prepare simple, basic individual income tax returns FREE of charge for Athens County residents. There are no hidden fees and no high interest rates. With direct deposit of your refund into a checking or savings account, you can have your ENTIRE refund in as little as 7 to 10 business days.

The Tax Assistance Center is conveniently located at The Work Station in The Plains. Basic returns are prepared by appointment. If you want your refund fast and free, and you have received all of your tax documents, call the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services Fast & Free Tax Assistance Center today to schedule an appointment at 740-797-2523 or 1-800-762-3775.

This is our fifth year operating the Athens County Fast & Free Tax Assistance Center where we have helped nearly 6000 taxpayers file returns free of charge. Call us at 740-797-2523 or 1-800-762-3775 to see what we can do for you.

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) centers are available in most states. To find one in you area, visit the IRS Web site or call 1-800-829-1040.