COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio's job picture appears rosy overall, yet some residents have not felt the effects.
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The state's poverty rate has declined slightly since Gov. John Kasich took office, while the number of poor Ohioans has remained essentially the same. Fewer residents are getting help from food assistance and cash welfare programs, despite what some advocates say is an ongoing need.
A look at politics and numbers surrounding poverty in Ohio, as Kasich seeks re-election Nov. 4 against Democrat Ed FitzGerald:
The state's poverty rate dropped from 2011 to 2013, according to the latest U.S. Census estimates, but there was no statistically significant change in the number of poor residents. Last year's poverty rate was 16 percent, down from 16.4 percent in 2011. The latest rate puts Ohio roughly in the middle of the pack among states and somewhat on par with the nation's rate. Still, Ohio's figure is higher than its 15.2 percent rate in 2009, during the Great Recession. Close to 1.8 million Ohioans are living in poverty, according to the latest estimates. A family of four is considered poor if its income is less than $23,834.
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Meanwhile, the number of Ohio residents getting food and cash assistance also has declined since 2011. When Kasich took office that January, 1.8 million residents received food stamps. The state's latest figures from June show 1.73 million people in the program, a decline of more than 75,000 recipients. Caseloads have diminished in the state's cash assistance program, called Ohio Works First. The program had roughly half the recipients in June as it did in January 2011. The total benefits paid also fell over the period, to almost $22.5 million from about $37 million.
Ohio fared better than the U.S., as the nation's poverty rate did not change over the 2011-13 period. The state's population growth could be one factor in the decline.
The drop in cash welfare and food stamp recipients is partly due to a combination of state and federal changes. Citing an improved economy, Ohio reinstated federal work requirements in most counties for those using food stamps. Able-bodied adults ages 18 to 50 without dependent children must spend at least 20 hours working, job training or volunteering each week to get food stamps. Sixteen high-unemployment counties were exempt from the requirements. Ohio also was under pressure from the federal government to enforce work requirements for the cash welfare program or face hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties.
Kasich successfully pushed to double a tax benefit designed to help low-income Ohioans who are working and earning enough to pay income taxes. The Republican was one of the few GOP governors to support an expansion of Medicaid under Democratic President Barack Obama's health care law. The federal-state Medicaid program provides health coverage for the poor and disabled.
FitzGerald, the Cuyahoga County executive, says Kasich's policies have not done enough for the poor and middle class. The Democrat has criticized the reinstatement of the work requirements for food stamps, saying Kasich pulled the rug out from under recipients who have been hard-pressed to meet the standards. FitzGerald supports obtaining a statewide waiver for the rules.
Kasich created an office within Ohio's social services agency to better coordinate public assistance programs. His current budget includes $150 million for work-support services, such as gas cards and emergency rent payments, intended to help cash welfare recipients.
FitzGerald is focused on reversing local government cuts to counties, which provide social services. He supports raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from the current rate of $7.95, which he says would help provide immediate aid. He also says he would push to increase microloans for small businesses that want to hire.
Bianca Cunningham, 38, last held a full-time job in 2008, as a cashier in a Columbus thrift store that closed. She gets financial help from her father and $189 a month in food stamps. "I'm a hard worker," Cunningham said at a recent clinic in Columbus to help food stamp recipients meet work requirements. She wants to get her GED and employment in child care or customer service. The line stretched out the door at the clinic, where another woman said she has been paying her cable-TV bill by donating her plasma.
Having once been on food stamps, Kelly Ragland of Columbus credits the rules with leading to a full-time job with the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, where she assesses the job skills of clients like Cunningham at the clinic and connects them to volunteer or employment opportunities. Ragland, 33, knows the lows of falling on hard times and the confidence gained from working. Helping people find work is fulfilling, she said. "We're all capable of something. All of us are."