Easy chair or safety net?

Toledo Blade - August 25, 2013

“A new study says welfare discourages work, in Ohio and across the country. It isn’t that simple or clear.”

So begins an editorial in the Toledo Blade, citing an attack by the libertarian Cato Institute on programs that help low-income people across the country make ends meet. The group released a study claiming that Americans can make more money collecting welfare than they can working at entry-level jobs.

The value of tax-free welfare benefits greatly exceeds the poverty level, the report says.

Such findings will convince those who want to be convinced. Others will suspect, correctly, that things aren’t quite that clear or simple.

The report’s authors call on state and federal lawmakers to curb welfare dependence and reward work by cutting benefits and tightening eligibility and work rules for recipients. That message has found a receptive audience among Republicans in Ohio’s legislature and congressional delegation.

Citing Policy Matters Ohio and Jack Frech of the Athens County Department of Jobs and Family Services, the editorial cuts through Cato’s claim that “recipients who forgo work for welfare may trap themselves and their families in long-term dependence.”

. . . liberal advocacy groups dispute the Cato report’s premise that Ohioans are substituting welfare for work. Instead, they say, safety-net programs are keeping working families — especially those with children — out of poverty while they wait for the recession to end for them.

Policy Matters Ohio notes that fewer than a third of Ohio families with children living in poverty get TANF benefits. A single parent with two children who works 22 hours a week at a minimum-wage job still qualifies for TANF.

Most adults in Ohio Works First, the state’s TANF cash assistance program, are working, Policy Matters says. And half of the participants in the program receive cash aid for a year or less.

Most safety-net recipients who aren’t old or disabled live in a household where an adult is working, Policy Matters adds. The group cites other research that challenges the notion that public benefits are discouraging work.

The Athens County Department of Job and Family Services, in Appalachian Ohio, questions the methodology of the Cato study. The department’s director, Jack Frech, notes that in Ohio, both the number of cash aid recipients and the value of their benefits have dropped dramatically in recent years.

The editorial concludes:

In the short term, Ohio needs to expand its Medicaid program to cover more working-poor families, not impose further restrictions. Food-stamp and Ohio Works First benefits can’t take more cuts if they are to help families meet their basic needs. State and local governments and school districts can’t absorb further reductions of essential public employees.

In the longer term, Ohio’s economy, and the nation’s, need to create jobs that pay enough to allow workers not only to survive, but to support families. Mr. Frech says: “It is very hard to imagine that anyone who actually studied the lives of the poorest children in our country could conclude that their parents were too well-off to have an incentive to work.”

That is what should be debated in Columbus and Washington, and at kitchen tables across America — not the tired stereotype of the welfare chiseler.

Easy chair or safety net?
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