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Ohio Hopeful It Will Avoid $135 Million in Federal Welfare Fines

Friday, January 18, 2013 at 9:02 AM

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Under federal rules, half of single-parent families receiving welfare payments must be involved in some kind of work activity -- like volunteering at a food pantry or going to school. But over the last several years Ohio’s cash-assistance program has fallen short, and state officials have been working to bring its work compliance rate back up and avoid millions of dollars in federal fines. They’re fairly confident they’ve succeeded, and as ideastream’s Nick Castele reports, the result is fewer people receiving cash benefits.

After the onset of the Great Recession, thousands of people in Ohio signed up for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. It’s called TANF for short, but most know it as welfare. From the end of 2008 to the end of 2010, the number of people on the program grew by 25 percent. 

As the economy faltered and welfare rolls increased, the mandatory work requirement that goes along with receiving benefits fell by the wayside in many counties. In 2011 Ohio was informed it faced as much as $135 million in federal fines for not meeting that work requirement.

Ben Johnson is with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

JOHNSON: “The $135 million fine would have jeopardized many of our safety net programs...The publicly funded childcare program is in part funded with TANF dollars. There are payments that we make to support food banks around the state. They are in part and often entirely funded with TANF dollars.”

The state sent a message to its 88 counties: Get your work participation rates up, or programs could face budget cuts.

Cuyahoga County is the state’s largest county, and it has one of the biggest welfare caseloads. 

Joe Gauntner, director of its Department of Employment and Family Services, says the his office began to look for ways to reduce the number of people in the program. 

GAUNTNER: “We started a conversation with folks at the point at which they first apply. And that conversation really talks to (them) to be sure that applicants understand their obligations under the law. Secondly, to talk with them about alternatives.”

The county also began to sanction more people who didn’t get in all their work hours. It suspended their benefits from one to six months.

From January to October last year, the size of the adult case load in Cuyahoga County fell by a fifth. The work participation rate for families in the county rose from about 26 percent to about 34 percent.

Likewise, work participation rates have risen in counties across the state as their case loads have diminished. Now the state believes it will not be fined – it hopes to find out for sure in February.

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Economy, Government/Politics

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