Canton Repository

March 28, 2002

Welfare plan poses challenge in Ohio 

Copley News Service

WASHINGTON — State officials are worried that a proposed tightening of the nation’s welfare laws could make it more difficult for Ohio recipients to find enough work and arrange child care, transportation and vocational training.

With a landmark 1996 revision of the nation’s welfare system set to expire Sept. 30, President Bush has proposed increasing the share from 50 percent to 70 percent of welfare recipients required to work to keep getting benefits.

He also would increase the number of hours that welfare recipients must work, and he would tighten the definition of allowed work activities.

The president’s plan would maintain $16.5 billion in annual federal block grants to the states. It also would continue a separate $4.8 billion annual block grant to states for child care.

But it’s not the only plan before Congress.

House Democrats have introduced their own reauthorization bill that would provide more federal dollars for welfare and child care, extend benefits to legal immigrants and encourage vocational education.

House and Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats are working on separate proposals to reauthorize the welfare law.

Bush’s proposal to boost the ratio of recipients required to work to 70 percent is “not as big a deal in Ohio as it is going to be for other states,” said Joel Potts, welfare policy administrator in the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

He said Ohio has a 60 percent participation rate, even though the federal requirement is 50 percent. Moving up to 70 percent is “not going to be easy, but it’s not out of reach either,” he said.

State and local officials are more worried about proposals to expand the work week for welfare recipients to 40 hours from the current 30 hours and to remove vocational education and basic literacy education as allowed “work activities.”

Under current law, as a condition of receiving benefits, welfare recipients must participate in work or related activities for 30 hours a week. During at least 20 of the 30 hours, they have to be in a job or work activity. Work can include paid, subsidized or unpaid work, while work activities can include vocational education, basic literacy skills or other forms of education or job-readiness programs. During the remaining 10 hours, caseworkers can assign recipients to developmental activities, such as mental health counseling, to address problems that stand in the way of holding a job.

Bush’s plan would mandate 40 hours of work and programs a week. The hours spent in work would increase to 24. The president would tighten the definition of what qualifies as work, eliminating vocational education, literacy development and other educational or job-readiness programs.

Expanding the time commitment to 40 hours would make it more difficult to schedule a combination of work and other programs,
Potts said.

Most working welfare recipients have part-time jobs, often with irregular hours. “Employers want (workers) available when they
have a need. When you’re trying to do a combination of services, you try to squeeze (nonwork activities) in, working around a work schedule. It becomes a real challenge. On paper, (the 40 hours) makes perfect sense. In practicality, it’s going to create some problems.”

Adding to the challenge for caseworkers is the necessity, in many situations, to find transportation and child care for recipients who are working.

Expanding the work requirement also would create more need for child care, officials say.

Under existing requirements, parents who work 30 hours might not need child care if their children’s six-hour school day
corresponds to the time the parents are away. In such cases, “we do not have to pay any additional child care except on days
school is not in session,” said Cristine Gregory, deputy director of human services at the Stark County Department of Job and
Family Services.

However, parents who are away for 40 hours will need child care at least some of the time, she said.

Steve Barbour, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers welfare, agreed the proposals pose a challenge.

“There will be significant issues, but it’s not insurmountable,” he said. “States have the flexibility to make it happen.”

Another Bush proposal causing concern is removing educational opportunities from the definition of allowed work activities.

By eliminating educational programs from the work period, the plan would “get them (welfare recipients) a feel and understanding of the 40-hour workweek and the obligation that entails,” Barbour said. Vocational education and other programs can be included in the 16 hours of nonwork each week, he added.

Ohio officials counter that vocational education keeps welfare recipients interested in leaving welfare and helps them acquire the skills they need to keep a job.

Vocational training “for the most part is very intensive. It tends to be 40 hours a week,” Gregory said. “Those people, when they
complete that training, get good jobs, and they don’t come back on” welfare. Gregory laments removing literacy assistance from the list of allowed work activities.

The remedial training provides a basis for some people to get and keep jobs, she said. “A lot of those folks have learning disabilities. The school system missed them. We lost a lot of them through the formal education process.”