Just when Rhyannon Schenck, 24, of Akron, thought things couldn’t get worse after she lost all her belongings in a house fire in 2009 — they did. Her car was stolen and she developed blood clots in her leg after her first child was born.
“I had a job at McDonald’s for five years. I had a car. I was doing good,” she said. “But the day before my maternity leave was up, my car was stolen and it was totaled. I had no way to get to work, so I lost my job.”
Now, because she’s not working, she faces losing income from the Ohio Works First cash-assistance program, a form of welfare.
To qualify, participants must work or risk being removed from the program for 3 to 6 months.
She’s not alone.
Summit County is leading the state’s urban counties in the number of people booted off Ohio Works First.
From 2011-12, Summit County reduced the number of persons on cash assistance from 10,419 to 5,965, or 43 percent, compared with about 25 percent statewide.
According to the Summit County Job and Family Services office, about 33 percent were dropped in 2012 because they failed to meet program requirements, making that the No. 1 reason.
Twelve percent failed to sign paperwork and another 12 percent requested removal.
Only about 10 percent reached the state time limit of three years.
By the rules
“Is that a concern? Yes, but it is not a concern we can control,” said Jason Dodson, Summit County chief of staff for County Executive Russ Pry. “Unfortunately we are an implementing agency …. We have to implement the policy that is there. We don’t decide who gets cash assistance.”
Christine Marshall, who runs the cash-assistance program in Summit County, said, “A good percentage choose not to participate and opt out of the program on their own. We aren’t deselecting them, they are deselecting themselves.
“Some say they could get a regular job that pays more,” she added. “Our hands are tied because we have to follow the state and federal guidelines.”
A single parent with children younger than 6 must work at least 86 hours a month and a two-parent household must log 151 hours a month.
There are consequences if county agencies fail to enforce the rules.
In 2007, the cash-assistance program came under federal scrutiny when it was discovered not enough recipients were working. States were threatened with sanctions, and counties would have been required to help pay fines.
No ride to work
Schenck said she fears losing her benefits because the agency placed her in a job that had limited bus service on weekdays and none on weekends. To walk took 40 minutes, but her doctor told her she should not walk long distances.
She said she tried, but after a week or so it got to be physically too much.
“I came home with my legs swollen every day in pain, crying, and ended up going to the emergency room, so I asked if they could put me at a job site on a bus line,” she said.
She turned in letters from her doctor saying she could not walk a long distance because of the blood clots. The agency is still reviewing the situation.
“It’s a very slow process. They have 30 days to review it, but in 30 days you could lose your house or your electric could be turned off,” Schenck said. “When they sanction you they take everything away from the parents, but they do leave medical assistance and food stamps for your children.”
Schenck said budgeting for the month is a challenge. She receives $458 a month and $500 in food stamps.
“It’s hard to manage because there is no extra money if something were to pop up that you would have to pay for, like medication in the middle of the month or at the end of the month,” she said. “You only get one check at the beginning of the month and you tend to spend it all in one day. You spend it trying to get caught up on bills. You pay your rent, you buy groceries, you buy toiletries, all the things you know you need.”
Marshall said the cash-assistance program requires recipients to sign a self-sufficiency contract, to participate in job-skills training programs and actively look for a job.
Recipients can be in the program for only 36 months, unless there are extenuating circumstances.
Some clients say they aren’t getting the skills they need to become self-sufficient, such as GED classes. The program doesn’t offer classes to help clients get a high school diploma.
“I take GED classes three days a week on my own, because I do want to better myself,” Schenck said. “I do want to be a productive member of society and have a nice job and have nice things and not have to count on the state for help.”
She was critical: “The program is not showing me anything I can actually use outside of the Job Center. They should be teaching things that you can use in your everyday life. Give me a class on how to write a resume or how to balance a checkbook or handle an interview.”
Marshall said those classes are available, but not through the program, which focuses on how to be responsible in the workplace.
The Job Center does offer GED classes, resume writing and interviewing techniques, but they are separate from the cash-assistance program. The agency’s website lists the workshops and the times they are available each month. Taking the classes would be on their own time.
Hemmed in by welfare
Kevin Spaulding, 47, of Akron, juggles Ohio Works First while raising two small children, one with medical challenges.
He said he is aware of the requirements of the program and tries to stay on task without risking being bumped, but also feels it to be limiting.
He works 46 hours a month and earns $127 — far below minimum wage — plus $117 in food stamps. His 2-year-old was born with respiratory problems and has a tracheostomy tube. Health care is complex and demanding. He has had custody of his son since birth. Last month Spaulding also received custody of his 1-year-old son.
He would like to supplement his income by working on cars, cutting grass or shoveling snow, but said earning more could result in a cut in benefits. He said he is being considered for an increase in food stamps and pay.
Spaulding said he is fortunate because when he lost his job in Kentucky and returned to Ohio, relatives wanted someone to take over the family home. In addition, he participates in other programs such as Summit County Women, Infants and Children, which provides nutrition for low-income families with children up to age 5.
“Diapers and milk are so high,” he said. “The cash helps with some of the bills. Luckily, all of my utility bills are subsidized. I just don’t ever have any cash for myself, but that’s OK. You have to make the best of it. Things could be a lot worse. If I didn’t have this program I would be frustrated and out here robbing, stealing or selling drugs and doing something stupid. I know I have to raise two boys. They keep me grounded from doing stupid stuff.”
Spaulding also wants to get his GED and said he wants more for his family.
“I’m not planning on living like this forever,” he said. “It’s just to help me until my son gets better or basically until he gets on his feet. I want to take up a trade and go to welding school. At 47, I have to do more. I’m still a proud man, even though I’m on welfare and not too educated.”
John Frech, director of Job & Family Services in Athens County, is an outspoken advocate for the poor, often testifying before the state legislature about basic needs and eliminating roadblocks.
His agency has maintained a steady number of cash-assistance clients for the past several years.
“Instead of kicking families off OWF assistance, we need to provide more funding, $100 per family, and more funding for job training and educational programs,” he said. “We need to stop ignoring these families and pretending that they do not exist.”
Blame is misplaced, he said.
“It seems pretty self-serving to say that we didn’t do this and these folks did this to themselves,” he said. “It reinforces the absolute worst stereotypes about poor people. The very agency whose job it is to help these people and keep them safe and protect their basic needs and help them find a job is basically saying poor people don’t want to work, they’re lazy and reinforcing a stereotype that simply isn’t true. The majority of these people absolutely want a job and want to work, but are having physical health problems, mental health problems, transportation problems or other issues.”
He said every county agency should try a little harder to help their clients, including following the paper trail more closely.
“These people have to move all the time, mail doesn’t always catch up to them on time. You have to go the extra mile to help these people get things signed, help get them into our office, help get these things taken care of,” Frech said. “You make that kind of thing a priority because you don’t want to cut anyone off just because they didn’t get some paperwork in.”
Schenck said she had to provide more than one letter from her doctor, but still wonders if it was enough documentation. She said it would be hard to get through another sanction. She was also sanctioned back in November. She said she was hospitalized and did not complete her paperwork in time and could not reach anyone by phone to walk her through the paperwork.
“I can’t afford to be sanctioned. If I lose my cash assistance I don’t really have anybody I can go to and ask for money. I just don’t,” she said. “My mom doesn’t have it and when I say she doesn’t have it, she doesn’t have it. She’s in a homeless shelter herself.”
Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or email@example.com.