We are killing our neighbors and their children. We are making their lives miserable and crushing any hope they may have by our collective lack of compassion. Infant-mortality rates have grown, especially among the poor and minorities. In spite of advances in medical care, longevity improvements have been limited to the wealthiest people.
While drug addiction is a society-wide problem, its most severe consequences remain with the poor. Opportunities for high-quality education remain out of reach for our less-fortunate citizens and their children. Some might chalk this up to an increasing failure of character on the part of low-income people. I think it is much more of a character flaw in the rest of us.
We spend a great deal of time and money to study the poor and ways to change their behavior. Why not spend more time and effort taking a hard look at ourselves and ask, “Why don’t we want to share?” You need no further evidence of our lack of compassion than the fact that Ohio is sitting on more than $570 million of unspent welfare block-grant funds while poor families struggle to meet their basic needs.
I ran a county welfare office for more than 30 years and participated in several rounds of “welfare reform.” They seemed to all be about threatening poor families with making their lives worse if they didn’t behave in ways that we wanted.
Many of our activities were beneficial. We helped thousands of people get education and job training. We offered assistance for transportation and other services. These efforts worked when they were adequately funded. Not so much today after years of program cuts. There was very little priority given to actually meeting basic human needs.
By the time I left several years ago, it was mostly about cutting people off of assistance or reducing their benefits. Since January 2011, when Ohio began its crackdown of Ohio Works First (cash welfare) work-participation rates, caseloads have been cut by more than half. Families have fallen apart. More than 80 percent of the welfare cash-assistance caseload are now “child only” cases in which children no longer live with their natural parents.
Before the reform, most poor kids got some cash assistance. Now only about 25 percent do. Far more children are living in households with zero cash income. In that same time frame, cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) from both the state and federal levels have added additional suffering to these same families and kids.
Cuts in these programs have reduced the annual income of poor families in Ohio by more than $1 billion a year. This has resulted in incredible family stress, homelessness, hunger and despair. There is no doubt that this has contributed to infant mortality, drug abuse, poor education and poor health outcomes. In the face of the obvious failure of these policies, we are about to double down on them by expanding the work requirement to Medicaid.
After making a much-needed expansion of the program, we are about to undo all of our progress by applying a clearly failed strategy to a perfectly good program. Most people on Medicaid who can work are already working at jobs that do not provide benefits. Of those few who are not, they are actively seeking work or are facing short-term health issues.
Make no mistake, those advocating the Medicaid work requirement are expecting outcomes similar to those with the cash-assistance programs. Caseloads will be reduced and more people will suffer.
We already have many existing programs to help people find work. Many have seen severe cuts in funding. Taking money and services away from poor people to improve their character has proved to be a tragically failed experiment.
We need to acknowledge that and proceed to fix the damage, not make their lives worse. We need to drop the request for a Medicaid waiver, increase job-training funding and restore basic cash-assistance programs for families.
Jack Frech is the retired director of Athens County Job and Family Services.