Monday, January 14, 2002

County will allow some to reapply for welfare




By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County officials plan to allow some of the area's poorest people back on the welfare rolls for an additional two years after they've been removed because of time limits.

        But the rules for deciding which families would qualify have not been decided.

        In Ohio, welfare recipients have three years on public assistance before being forced off. Then they have to wait two years before applying for reinstatement. Counties then have the option of allowing the recipients to apply for another two years of benefits.

        The first people — 23 families — were removed from the welfare rolls in October 2000. They will be able to apply for reinstatement in October. Every month after that, another group will become eligible for reinstatement.

        Last year, 588 families were forced off the welfare rolls. An additional 620 families reached their time limits, but were given extensions for reasons such as having a disability, having four or more children younger than 14, or providing medical care for a family member.

        It is unclear what the rules will be for reinstatement of benefits. An advisory committee to the county's Department of Job and Family Services will begin debating the issue next week.

        Suzanne Burke, director of Job and Family Services, said the advisory group is made up of people from many different social service agencies. “They have varied viewpoints,” Ms. Burke said. “It's a good group of peo ple.”

        The federal time limit for receiving welfare benefits is five years. Ohio adopted a three-year time limit, with the intention of allowing its counties to reinstate families if they choose.

        Gwen Robinson, president and CEO of the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency, who is on the county's advisory committee, said poor people are “panicking” over $34 million in cuts this year to social service agencies, which were helping them get off and stay off welfare.

        “We made a lot of promises to people about welfare reform,” Ms. Robinson said. “People grabbed onto that, then all of a sudden we pull it back.”

        Ms. Robinson said she would like the rules for reinstatement to be based on need, particularly if circumstances in peoples' lives have changed, making it impossible for them to sustain themselves.

        Exactly which circumstances will allow a family to back onto welfare, and those that won't, are the crux of the debate.

        Ms. Robinson said she's not sure what impact the social service cuts will have

        on the number of people who seek reinstatement of welfare benefits.

        “I think we've lost the support system that was able to keep people going forward,” Ms. Robinson said. “I don't know how many people have gone backwards yet, but I do know we were making strides before and I cannot say that is what's happening now.”

        John Young, the county's welfare reform executive, said he hopes to have a recommendation for county commissioners in about two months. Mr. Young said it is important to have the community involved in making the decision about who should be allowed back onto the welfare rolls and who shouldn't.

        “The community has been, in so many ways, our advisory group,” Mr. Young said. “We need a community response to this issue.”

        Dot Christenson, executive director of the Better Housing League, who is also on the advisory committee, said there is sure to be heated debated over the issue.

        Ms. Christenson said that because most states have five-year term limits for welfare recipients, Ohio's counties will be watched closely to see how many families apply for reinstatement.

        County commissioners will eventually have the final say.

       



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