Last updated: January 24. 2014 3:42PM - 1980 Views
By Catherine Candisky The Columbus Dispatch



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COLUMBUS — More than 10,000 poor Ohioans have lost food stamp benefits this month for failing to meet newly enforced work requirements.


That’s 7 percent of the roughly 140,000 able-bodied adults ages 18 to 50 without dependent children who are now required to spend at least 20 hours a week working, training for a job, attending class or volunteering to receive assistance, according to figures provided by state officials.


Human-services officials and advocates for the poor expect the number to increase sharply in February and the following months.


“This is just the start,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks and a critic of the requirement.


County caseworkers, particularly in urban areas with larger caseloads, have not completed required assessments of food-stamp recipients to determine if they must comply with the new rules or should be exempt because of mental illness, substance abuse or other issues.


In addition, thousands have failed to respond to letters asking them to come to their county Job and Family Services office for an assessment. They are likely to be booted from the rolls in February.


“The overwhelming majority (of food-stamp recipients) — 75 percent in some counties — didn’t respond to the request for an assessment,” said Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association.


“Of those who are showing up, about half are being exempted.”


About 1.8 million Ohioans receive food stamps, with the average individual benefit about $132 a month. One in five recipients has no cash income, according to a recent federal analysis.


The work requirement has been in place since 1996, but for the past six years Ohio has taken advantage of a federal waiver exempting food-stamp recipients from work because the economic recession had made jobs scarce.


This past fall, Gov. John Kasich’s administration announced that while Ohio still qualified for the waiver, the state would reinstate work requirements beginning Oct. 1 in all but 16 counties with high unemployment. At the time, Kasich’s spokesman said the governor believed in a work requirement and that the state’s economy had improved enough not to need the waiver from the federal government.


Food-stamp recipients can miss the requirement up to three months every three years, essentially giving them three months or until Jan. 1 to comply. However, the deadline was pushed back in many counties because notifications were not sent out until mid- or late October.


Potts said reaching recipients has been challenging because many are transient. About 10 percent of mailings were returned because the individual no longer lived at the address on file.


Another difficulty is expanding the state’s workforce-development system to absorb as many as 140,000 people, many unprepared for work.


“We need to establish tens of thousands of work opportunities for folks with multiple barriers to meeting the new requirements,” said Hamler-Fugitt, who is assisting Franklin County Job and Family Services to find jobs, volunteer work and other placements for food-stamp recipients.


“I’ve placed (everyone from) an eighth-grade dropout to a recent law-school graduate. Some folks have no resumes, no Internet access, no emails, and all the jobs, even minimum-wage ones, must be applied for online. We have people with felony records and older folks in the 40- to 50-year range who had worked but have been off for a long time.


“Many are not going to find paid employment so all we can do is find some volunteer or work experience for them.”

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