What Will Happen to Ohio’s Safety Net Programs?

As we begin the new 2015-2016 legislative session, the Ohio House has new leadership, with a larger majority of Republicans, the Senate has the same leadership, and the voters endorsed the same Governor, not to mention the same roster of other elected state officials. As a poverty law practitioner and advocate for low income Ohioans, I have been paying close attention to the words those in power have been using and actions those in power have been taking with regard to Ohio’s social safety net/public assistance programs.

To digress briefly, generally, food aid (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, i.e. SNAP), health care (Medicaid), financial assistance for needy families (Ohio Works First) are three main programs that come to mind when people use the words “public assistance.” But there are a host of other programs designed to help those struggling to support themselves and their families, including subsidized child care, help with work and transportation expenses, and family emergencies, unemployment compensation, and job search and job training. For the most part, these programs are funded with varying combinations of state and federal dollars.

For a while now, the dialog in Ohio has been liberally sprinkled with terms like “personal responsibility” and statements about creating policies that “help Ohioans lift themselves out of poverty,” and focusing on “mobility.” We now have a new House committee, the Community & Family Advancement Committee, the overarching purpose of which is “helping those who need help [get] connected with the available resources so they don’t become permanently reliant on state and federal assistance.” We also have a new workgroup, created by the 2014 mid-biennial budget review bill: the Workgroup to Help Individuals to Cease Relying on Public Assistance. This workgroup is in addition to the Healthier Buckeye Council and the Office of Human Services Innovation. The Office of Human Services Innovation is charged with developing a new approach to human services and public assistance that provides a hand up and out of poverty for low income Ohioans seeking a better life. It is unclear to me what exactly the Healthier Buckeye Council is, or will be, doing. A July 2014 draft “call for participation” states this objective: “To assist more of our constituents to move themselves up and off of needing public assistance, including Medicaid.”

If this rhetoric and these initiatives can be put into practical operation to first stabilize low income Ohioans so they are able to meet their basic needs of food, housing, health care, transportation and education; then second, align and integrate programs and resources to genuinely help address barriers to participation in the community and the economy, then they have my support. Too often, however, the poor have been stigmatized, suggesting that Ohioans with little or no income, or no job, have achieved this status, or remain in this status, as a matter of personal choice. Our Governor refers to “those who live in the shadows.” “Personal responsibility” has been a buzz word meaning “work for your benefits”. This view assumes that if this population just goes out and gets jobs; first because there are jobs to be had, and second because they are able to do those jobs, all will be right in the world – i.e., no need for handouts.

But you can’t make intelligent decisions, or design systems to move people out of poverty and lessen the burden on the safety net programs, if you do not know all the facts. There are lots of facts to uncover or investigate in the quest to create systems that give people a hand up to a better life, and I freely admit I do not have all the facts. But here are some facts I hope policy and program decision makers will consider:

1. Number Two in the list of fastest growing jobs in Ohio, at a projected rate of 4,281 job openings per year, is the occupation of Home Health Aide. The median pay for Home Health Aides is $9.60 per hour. While the Number One fastest growing job has 2.2 times the earning potential, the projected rate of job openings sits at 138.
2. The top five occupations in Ohio with the most annual job openings include: food prep and service work; retail sales; cashiers; laborers/material movers; and waiter and waitresses. The laborers win the prize in this category with the highest median wage of $10.85.
You can find this information and a lot more, about Ohio jobs and the job outlook at: http://ohiolmi.com/proj/projections.htm. The bottom line is this: the jobs Ohio employers need to fill, and will keep filling in Ohio in the foreseeable future, are mostly low-wage helping and service related jobs.

3. Ohio has added back only two-thirds of the jobs lost during the recession. Nine out of ten jobs lost during the recession were medium or high paying jobs, but all the job growth has come from low wage jobs.
4. The list of Ohio’s 50 largest employers is comprised of fast food, discount retail, grocery, home improvement, health care, and temporary employment agencies. These employers pay so poorly that in 2013, 115,488 employees and their families needed food aid to get by and 141,182 workers and their families qualified for Medicaid.
5. The amount needed for families to be self-sufficient, or meet basic needs without supports from the safety net programs, varies by geographic location and family size. As an example, a family of one adult and one preschooler needs to make $13.54 per hour in Jackson County, versus $19.81 in Warren County, to make ends meet with no frills.

Putting Ohioans to work in the jobs currently available and “in demand” will not remove the need for supporting that work with the safety net programs that keep families from sinking further into the shadows. Supporting families by helping them meet the basic needs for food, shelter, health care and transportation, and supporting families by subsidizing child care to enable work engagement, is an investment in Ohio’s recovery and economic and social well being. It is the role of our government to step up to the plate and make this investment – to be there to help – to insure that all Ohioans have an opportunity equal to everyone else in the state.