Friday, June 30, 2000

Welfare overhaul approaches next milestone

Effect on clients should be gradual, state officials say

By John Nolan
The Associated Press

        The Ohio agencies serving the jobless and needy are being transformed, but so gradually that even clients may be unaware that Saturday is a landmark for what officials hope will be a national model for welfare reform.

        The Department of Human Services, which administers welfare, and the Bureau of Employment Services are merging when the state begins budget year 2001. The aim is to streamline services at a new Department of Job and Family Services.

        But Ohio's change will take months to filter down to all the county offices where people go to apply for help.

        “I don't think people who are getting welfare benefits are aware that anything is going to change,” said Katy Heins, a leader of the Welfare Rights Coalition, which works with and lobbies for welfare recipients. “It's just happening and it's going to be a quiet thing. It might be a bigger deal to people on the state level than it is on the county level.”

        One applicant, Debra Collins, emerged from a county welfare services building Thursday frustrated about what she regarded as the slow pace of obtaining aid while she looks for a job. To get job information, she would have to go to a different office 10 miles away.

        Angel Harris walked from the building with the latest round of paperwork she must file while she tries to take care of her two children, pass a high school degree equivalency test and pursue education to land a job in nursing.

        Ms. Collins was unaware of the merger. Ms. Harris knew about it because it will affect the duties of her contact at the Hamilton County Department of Human Services.

        State officials say the merger will eventually reduce paperwork and consolidate services under one roof. They consider it an important step in the national movement to get people off long-term welfare rolls and into jobs, to reduce dependence on public assistance.

Dayton center a model
        Jacqui Romer-Sensky, director of the Ohio Department of Human Services and head of the new combined agency, said Ohio has been working with federal officials to get them to sign off on the new system.

        Ms. Romer-Sensky said the federal government is accustomed to helping fund programs for employment and human services separately. She said they are also used to dealing with whole states or large groups of counties, instead of individual counties as they will under Ohio's new system.

        “That's really the issue. You're probably not going to see wholesale change until we finish working through some of these federal issues,” Ms. Romer-Sensky said.

        In most Ohio cities, job seekers must go one place for employment information and another to apply for welfare benefits. Ms. Romer-Sensky and Gov. Bob Taft on Wednesday toured the Job Center in Dayton, an eight-acre building that offers job information and welfare assistance under one roof. It has served more than 1 million people in three years of operation.

        State officials praised the Dayton center as a model for what they hope the state agency merger could do toward helping people improve their lives.

Easier job hunting
        Bobby Grubbs, 59, of Trotwood, showed up at the Dayton center looking for work. Mr. Grubbs retired last year after spending 30 years as a federal meat inspector. He said he wants a job both for the money and to keep busy.

        Coming to the Job Center beats looking for work by knocking on doors, Mr. Grubbs said.

        “You've got a place where something is supposed to be available,” he said. “If you go knock on doors, you've wasted time. My time is important.”


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- Welfare overhaul approaches next milestone