The primary goal when Congress overhauled the welfare system in 1996 was to provide support for people who qualify for the new system, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, to find work, become self-sufficient and break the cycle of generational poverty. Thus, to be in the program, recipients signed a self-sufficiency contract, which included a work plan.
During the past several years, Ohioans have counted the effects of a harsh recession in high rates of joblessness, hunger and poverty. The figures remain high even as the economy recovers. The unemployment rate in July was 7.2 percent. Census reports put the state’s poverty rate at 16.4 percent in 2011. Yet state data show the number of residents who receive cash support through the Ohio Works First program has declined by more than 100,000 in three years, from 242,000 in 2010 to 130,000 last year.
The shrinking caseload runs counter to what one might expect from the indicators of economic hardship. Which prompts some questions: Why are welfare recipients leaving in droves during a period of exceptional economic hardship? Are they leaving because they have found jobs or are self-sufficient? In short, is the decline an indication, evidence-based, that Ohio is achieving the self-sufficiency goal of welfare reform?
Unfortunately, there appears to be little specific data on which to base a definitive answer. Yes, much data reporting is required to establish eligibility and to track compliance by participants, via the state and county departments of job and family services. But all that data collecting seems geared more to checking for compliance than to assessing whether the policies are effective in moving recipients successfully from welfare to work.
In Ohio about 30 percent of recipients in any one month are dropped for fraud or failure to comply. By all accounts, the state has done a better job since 2010 of enforcing compliance with work requirements. But with the remaining 70 percent who leave the rolls, the state cannot readily tell how many make the transition to self-sufficiency. Lacking is the information essential for policymakers to determine how best to deploy resources.