By Marc Kovac
Advocates for the needy in recent weeks have called repeatedly on Gov. John Kasich to continue waiving work requirements for welfare recipients to ensure families have access to food assistance.
Representatives of food banks joined Democratic lawmakers and others urging the administration to follow in the footsteps of other states and request an extension of the waiver, implemented during the so-called Great Recession and continued in Ohio through the end of 2013.
“The cold-hard reality of hunger is about to get a whole lot worse beginning in January for over 134,000 unemployed, nondisabled childless adults living in 72 counties who will lose their food-stamp benefits unless they are able to meet the work requirements ...,” Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks, told reporters during a November news conference at the Statehouse. “Hunger has never been higher in Ohio as it is now, and unemployment continues to be a statewide challenge.”
But Kasich has stood firm in his decision to move forward without the waiver, requiring able-bodied adults to look for jobs, attend career training or complete other tasks in order to receive continuing food assistance.
Though he didn’t mention the issue specifically during a year-end speech to chamber of commerce groups recently, Kasich said his administrations is entering the new year with hopes of developing better ways to help Ohioans living in poverty while working to ensure others find jobs and leave the public welfare rolls.
“It’s also a sin to continue to help people who need to learn how to help themselves,” the governor said.
Kasich doesn’t have a set plan in place for dealing with poverty. He said his administration is open to ideas.
“It’s probably some sort of connection between health, education, training and probably having to do also with a number of social services that come together at a point where we can get people listed,” he said. “Too much of the systems are archaic and they are not flexible. In other words, if you have somebody who’s on a benefit program and they can get a job but yet they can’t get a job that pays anything more than what they’re getting, it doesn’t work real well, does it? So we need to figure out a way to incentivize people back to work, and here’s the reason: If people are not working over time, the children see a role model and example that is not healthy for their future.
“And I learned this in welfare reform. ... They said when we were going to eliminate the entitlement ... people screamed that it was going to be a disaster, and now people who were on welfare say thank you for what you did. ... They said thank you for getting us off. So it’s effective training, it’s effective education, it’s decent health care. Poverty is cruel. You see that one in four kids they say in our state lives in poverty. Think about that. Not much to eat, not good clothes to wear. ... We’ve got to do better than that in this state.”
But the governor said the state needs to find ways to make sure public assistance is directed at those who are truly in need and not those who are just stuck in the system.
“It’s so hard to figure out how do you separate those who are truly needy from those who kind of got of got comfortable being in poverty,” he said. “Now some people will say nobody’s comfortable with that, but if you talk to people who are experts in this area, some will tell you that it is a challenge. Nobody gets a lot of money on these programs. Nobody does. Say you get a family of four. They get about $115 or $120 a week to take care of their groceries, their utilities, their clothing and all that. ... Let’s help those that are really hungry to get out and improve their lives, and that involves training. But how do you get the system to work where people don’t become permanently stuck because we haven’t figured out a way to design a system that is incentivized, that gets people to work. ...
“The lady that’s working the midnight shift at a fast-food restaurant, who’s barely scraping by, she doesn’t want her money to be given to somebody who doesn’t want to work. She’s all for giving her money to somebody who can’t work. So the next stage is, how do we think about this? ... We’re going to see what we can do to think differently. I have no great answers at this point. You have to have compassion, but you also have to have an element of discipline in the way we run these programs.”
The governor received an early Christmas present from the Ohio Supreme Court — a decision confirming his move to implement an expansion of Medicaid eligibility through the seven-member state Controlling Board rather than seeking full votes of the Ohio House and Senate.
He defended his Medicaid decision during his chamber of commerce speech.
“Twenty-six thousand veterans do not have health care,” he said. “That’s unconscionable. They fall in a place where they don’t get any help. Now that we’re getting our dollars back, Ohio’s dollars back, to our state to deal with our problems, they’re going to get help. The mentally ill? What we have done to the mentally ill in this country is a disgrace. We took them out of the institutions, and where do we see them? They’re in our prisons. ... Ten percent [of the state’s prison] population are people with mental illness. You put a schizophrenic in a prison? It’s not right.
“So now we’re going to have the resources we need to begin to deal with the problems of mental illness in our communities. And God forbid that any of you have your sons or daughters come home for Christmas vacation and to find out that your daughter’s up in her room for a couple of hours, you find out she’s bipolar. Well, we’ll treat it, we can fix it, but you can’t fix it without doing the things you need to do and to have the resources you need. ...
“You’re going to see the mentally ill treated better, the drug addicted and the needs of the local community served. The working poor are now going to have rational health care so that they don’t end up in the emergency room where they get the most expensive and least effective care.”