Kimberly Thompson, 43, says she was lying in a hospital bed when she found out that she would no longer receive government assistance. The letter from the county shocked her: "They basically cut me off of benefits for not reporting I was in a coma," she says.
When Thompson woke up, she learned that her cash assistance through the Ohio Works First program as well as her food stamp benefits had been terminated—more than $700 per month in total. Administrators said the county imposed a sanction because she had failed to complete the mandatory work and training requirement for receipt of government assistance. Thompson called the Franklin County, Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services to tell them she was in the hospital. A worker there told her she had two days to verify her hospitalization. Frail and unable to move—she'd had seven toes amputated and says she lost some cognitive capacity—she was unable to get to the county office.
Advocates for the poor in Ohio say that situations like Thompson's are not uncommon as a several-year-old effort to impose strict work requirements on state welfare and food stamp recipients has led to thousands of families losing aid. Anti-poverty advocates note that even as the state is moving to bolster the medical safety net through Medicaid expansion, it has dramatically slashed its welfare rolls since 2011, shrinking the program from 90,000 cases to 60,000 in the last four years. Most of the remaining people relying on cash assistance are children who often live with grandparents.
"The way most counties meet the work requirement is to throw people off," said John Frech, the director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services. Frech has been critical of the state trends. His county is unusual in that its welfare program has maintained similar caseload levels since 2011 even as it has connected more of those on the program with jobs and training. "Ohio made this a success from the state's perspective by throwing families off of a program that they need. Rather than working to help poor families, we've left families in a terrible situation."
Read more from NBC News' In Plain Sight.