LIMA — Some people receiving food assistance might not be eligible for an extension unless they find work, a watchdog group warned.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, helps provide food to needy individuals and families. However, to prevent creating dependency, the department puts a time limit on assistance to able-bodied adults without dependents, reducing aid to three out of 36 months, unless those recipients work 20 hours per week.
However, with the economy still recovering, the USDA permits states to apply for waivers on that time limit for counties with unemployment rates 120 percent above the national average. The Kasich administration has applied for a time limit waiver on 18 rural counties in 2016, while three counties and 10 cities that could qualify for that waiver, including Lima, were excluded.
Political think tank Policy Matters Ohio said this would preclude thousands of people in need from receiving assistance, particularly in the minority community, who reside largely in urban areas.
“This is a big problem across the state,” Policy Matters Ohio Senior Project Director Wendy Patton said. “We know that nationally, people who need food stamp aid predominantly live in urban and suburban areas.”
According to the group, the response they received from the Kasich administration when asked why these exclusions were taking place was that these benefits are administered at the county level, so individual communities cannot be singled out. However, according to Joel Potts, executive director of the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors’ Association, there are potential ways around this.
“When people apply for assistance, they have an address, which includes a ZIP code,” he said. “So that just becomes a field, where if we determined we wanted to do something specific by ZIP code, we could have the ability to do that.”
The issue, according to Potts, is that for many food stamp recipients, there are simply too few work opportunities available.
“For the little amount of money that counties get, which is literally pennies per client, you can’t create work,” he said. “If we could have, we would have done it before.”
According to Allen County Job and Family Services, more than 2,000 able-bodied adults without dependents live in Lima. However, according to director Steve Barker, most of their clients in this category should retain benefits, provided they continue working with the department either in work programs or job training.
“To continue eligibility for food assistance, our clients need only participate in our STEPS program,” he said. “They come in for a work program assessment to determine what their capabilities are, and then they accept assignment to a nonprofit worksite, if and when such a site becomes available.”
While the challenge has remained for the department to find ways for recipients to maintain benefits, Barker said that Lima is in a good position.
“For Lima, it’s probably going to have less effect than it would in some of the bigger suburban counties,” he said. “As long as people continue to participate with their assessments and continue to be available for worksites, they will receive their assistance.”
The issue with waivers harks back to the larger philosophical debate concerning welfare reform.
“The very fact that we call them able-bodied adults without dependents, there is no reason they can’t work,” Potts said. “Why aren’t they working? Why should I, the taxpayer, be working and paying money so this person cannot work and get food? Then you have the other side of the coin that says there aren’t enough jobs or they can’t work.”
While Potts appreciates both viewpoints, he said that no matter which side one may take in this debate, getting people back to work is something upon which everyone can agree.
“We definitely believe in the power of work,” he said. “Even if you get the waiver, it doesn’t stop us from needing to do more to get people from welfare to work, because that is ultimately how they will improve their circumstances.”
Reach Craig Kelly at 567-242-0390 or on Twitter @Lima_CKelly.