Working-age Ohioans between ages 18 and 50 who have no dependent children, are not employed and are not involved in work-related activities (such as training, work experience or volunteer programs) for at least 20 hours a week can expect next to nothing in food assistance. Unless they live in one of 16 counties where the unemployment rate is among the state’s highest, “able-bodied adults without dependents” are permitted just three months of benefits in a three-year period from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The policy, which took effect Jan. 1, was the Kasich administration’s response to enforce federal work requirements for the program. Advocates for the poor were dismayed, and rightly so, by the stringent policy. They argued it is the wrong time to cut off crucial support to people who have very limited resources. They pointed to growing hunger and food insecurity across the state. They noted the past recession was exceptionally brutal and that hunger rates typically lag economic downturns.
Ohio tallied some 400,000 fewer jobs over the recession’s 28-month span. The recovery has been halting, Ohio still thousands of jobs below 2007 levels. Further, employment and job-growth numbers have stalled in recent months.
No one disputes these realities or that the circumstances have been roughest on those with little education and few options for employment.
The more disturbing, then, the state’s policy on SNAP work requirements. It need not have been as harsh. As a review by Jon Honeck of the Center for Community Solutions makes clear, states have avenues to narrow the reach of the work requirements: States can apply to the Department of Agriculture for a waiver of the work requirements for regions in a state that are classified as “labor surplus areas” by the Department of Labor, meaning employment options are few. A state can exempt an additional 15 percent of its caseload without the need for case by case evaluation. States also can qualify for a statewide waiver if unemployment remains high.
As it had in previous years, Ohio qualified this year for a statewide waiver. But the governor chose to restrict the waiver to 16 counties. Neither did he grant the additional 15 percent exemption. Five cities, including Cleveland and East Cleveland, are designated “labor surplus areas.” But they are not in exempt counties, and so there is no relief there, either, from the requirements. There’s no small irony in all this. It is the same governor who has argued so well and strongly for leveraging federal options to assist those who need health care who has rejected waivers that would assist hungry, jobless adults.