May 5, 2014

"We have a hunger problem in the state of Ohio"

Recent testimony from Ohio State Rep. Dan Ramos urging the House Health and Aging Committee to accept a federal work waiver for certain individuals who receive food assistance. Ramos is a Democrat from Lorain who currently serves as the Assistant Minority Whip.

Chairman Wachtmann, Vice Chairwoman Gonzales, Ranking Minority Member Antonio and members of the House Health and Aging Committee, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to bring before you H.B. 395 this morning.

H.B. 395 would require that Ohio file for the work requirement waiver to the Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWD) program under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, for all counties deemed federally eligible. Before I begin, let me be clear, just like the individuals receiving assistance and just like all of you – I want Ohioans to work. They want to work. As our distinguished chairman so eloquently put it, work is good for the soul and it is good for the pocketbook. Every able bodied Ohioan should be able to find gainful employment in the State of Ohio.

With that said, as you may be aware, in October of 2013 the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services announced a change in policy to forego the work requirement waiver in 72 of Ohio’s 88 counties. The 16 counties where the department selectively accepted the federal work requirement waiver were mostly southeastern and rural; but, the United States federal government extended the waiver offer to all 88 counties because it was determined there were not enough work and volunteer opportunities available to meet the demand of the number of unemployed or underemployed in our state.

On January 1st, 2014, Ohioans who were unable to secure at least 20 hours per week of work or community service for three months over a 36 month period started to be sanctioned or removed from the program. To date, at least 26,000 Ohioans have been removed from basic nutritional assistance as a result of this policy change. Work placement opportunities, part-time jobs, and faith based volunteer organizations are at capacity – the demand for work in our state is greater than the economic climate that has failed to create it.

Unfortunately, as we have seen in Cuyahoga County where local officials spent at least $1.5 million trying to comply with the foregone waiver, these policies have come at a tremendous cost. Local Jobs and Family Service departments across the state continue to scramble to contact this population, update their records, and find work placements. In effect, the state has prioritized tax dollars to kick people off food assistance instead of helping people on assistance receive the much needed training they need to become fully employed.

Before I continue, let me point out that if the policy changes made in October acted to identify the challenges faced by these 134,000 Ohioans, and to help these individuals obtain job training in pursuit of full-time employment, I would have applauded the administration’s willingness to help lift up all Ohioans from hunger and poverty. However, the decision made late last year to pull the rug out from under these individuals, at the same time the administration celebrated the expansion of Medicaid for this population, I believe, is disingenuous. Furthermore, I believe the changes will ultimately cost taxpayers more money in the long run as poor nutrition will increase healthcare costs for this population. When considering both of these programs and policy changes in tandem, this is not money saved at the state or federal level and this is not the best policy for hungry Ohioans.

Since I introduced H.B. 395 in December, I have spoken with individuals and organizations across the state. Those who work directly with this population have expressed their belief that the waiver should have been sought in all 88 Ohio counties so that the state could collect data and take the time necessary to develop a comprehensive plan to address food insecurity. Ohio’s foodbanks are struggling as they have been forced to take on an impossible challenge in trying to meet the increased demand by people looking for their next meal. It is sorely overdue that we spend a little effort gathering data about these people and about their challenges to finding employment.

In Franklin County, those serving this population have done the work we should have done as a state. Over the last few months, they have started working to assess as many of these individuals as possible, so that we might have a better understanding about the population for which we are writing policy. I would like to take a moment to share with you some key points from the 933 ABAWD recipients they surveyed:

  • 61.8% have not been given applications to apply for Medicaid and 71.9% of recipients reported they were not under the care of a doctor.
  • While 28.3% of recipients never finished high school 31.6% of recipients have attended some college.
  • 54.2% of recipients do not have a valid driver’s license and 25.4% said they do not have reliable transportation.
  • 33.9% report a physical or mental limitation.
  • 17.8% have filed for SS, SSI, or SSDI.23% of recipients have children, but do not have custody.
  • 65.1% have never received unemployment compensation – this is often their only form of assistance.
  • 15.8% said they were caregivers for a friend, parent or family member – saving the state money as a result.
  • Just 16.0% of recipients are registered to work in Ohio Means Jobs – most clients said they had never heard of the website.
The survey conducted is just the start of what is needed to properly understand this population. Many people have not had access to healthcare, and at least a third of those surveyed may not be able bodied at all. Many struggle with issues concerning transportation, a public service our state has largely failed to deliver to taxpayers. Some recipients are high school dropouts, but others have attended and even graduated from college. Lastly, the whole mishandling of this issue is exemplified by the fact that one of the administration’s trademark policies for job seekers, Ohio Means Jobs, is not known by the majority of this population – all of which are seeking jobs. How is it that a private-public partnership created by the Governor aimed at pairing job creators with job seekers is not known by 134,000 Ohioans in desperate need of work?

As a state, it is clear that we lack a coherent plan for how we should educate, train, and move these Ohioans from assistance to independence and from being food insecure to being food secure. As a former food stamps caseworker, and the only one in the legislature, I can tell you first hand recipients find no pride or glory in filing for assistance or begging for help and many are devastated by the feeling of helplessness that accompanies the inability to fulfill the most basic of necessities in their lives. The misinformation that continues to be spread painting these Ohioans as “takers”, despite 65% having never even so much as received unemployment compensation, is appalling.

For “food secure” households in this state, Ohioans spent an average of $2.50 per meal in 2012. That means, for the 1 in 6 Ohio households that faced food insecurity between 2010 and 2012, they lived on a daily food budget that would likely fall short of buying two items off the dollar menu. The average SNAP benefit in this state equates to less than $1.40 per person per meal.

Denial does not change the facts; we have a hunger problem in the state of Ohio.

Sure, hunger issues impact poor urban areas, such as the district I represent where 15 percent of individuals suffer from food insecurity; but, it also impacts every other district as well. Of those currently serving on this committee, only Representatives Hill and Johnson represent counties exempted from the work requirement waiver. For the rest of us, those hungry Ohioans in our districts unable to find work are somehow assumed to be less hungry under the administration’s decision.

The intent, as cited by the administration, was to accept the waiver for those counties hit hardest by the current economic climate. As such, counties such as Muskingum, Adams, and Scioto received a waiver. Brown County, with 7.3% unemployment, also received the waiver but Fulton, Cuyahoga, Lorain, Gallia, Jackson and Vinton County, all of which have an unemployment rate of at least 7.3%, are among those that did not receive the work requirement waiver. Similarly, Mahoning, Portage, Geauga and Stark County all have an unemployment rate of at least 6.0% and are without this waiver.

I challenge each of you to ask yourselves what makes hungry people in the foregone different than those in the 16 selected counties that are currently receiving the benefit. The citizens in 72 counties, your constituents, are without access to basic nutrition. Right now, Ohioans are making choices between eating, paying rent, or going to see the doctor. These are decisions that no citizen in a country as wealthy as ours should have to make, particularly at a time when work opportunities are still scarce as a result of a investment banker driven financial collapse and subsequent statewide divestment in our citizens and local communities.

Hunger knows no party affiliation, it knows no county lines. Hunger does not know race, gender, or religion. Hunger is indiscriminate and tireless, it cripples those who suffer from it. If we are serious about helping Ohioans step out of poverty and enabling individuals to do better for themselves and better for their families, we must make a conscious decision to provide the most basic of nutrition in order for these individuals to be able to focus on job training, employment searches, preparing for interviews, and learning a new trade. So long as the primary concern is whether or not their next meal is coming, Ohioans will continue to underperform the potential which resides inside each and every one of us.

Chairman Wachtmann, and members of the committee, thank you, again, for allowing me the opportunity to provide testimony on H.B. 395 this afternoon. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have at this time.

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