The number of Ohioans receiving cash assistance has dropped dramatically the past year and a half. Unfortunately, the reason for the sharp decline hardly calls for celebration.

It has been 16 years since federal laws have required that the poorest citizens who are eligible to receive public cash assistance work for their monthly allowance. The idea was that the cash payments would offer temporary support for the beneficiaries to find jobs — or at least show some evidence they were taking steps to become self-sufficient by participating in training and education programs. The cash benefits, which amount to $450 a month for a family of three, are limited to three years. State governments receive federal block grants to help welfare clients make the transition from welfare to work and self-sufficiency and to ensure compliance with the requirements.

Indeed, there are times when sharp declines in the welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, are good cause for celebration. These are the times when local economies are strong and growing, and there are many opportunities to hire or train those people who typically have minimal education, few skills and little work experience. It would be hard to argue the past four years have been such a period.

Studies indicate that enrollment in safety-net programs tracks closely economic conditions. It shrinks when there are adequate opportunities for people to take care of themselves and their families. But Ohio still is making halting steps toward economic recovery. The availability of jobs in the public and private sectors remains well below employment levels in 2007. Roughly 19 percent of Ohioans now are living in poverty.

Given such circumstances, the reason state officials are culling the welfare rolls is more a cause for concern than for cheering.

Ohio’s welfare numbers have shrunk by one-third in the past year and a half. Many recipients have been kicked off the program as state officials try to beat a September deadline to avoid losing $130 million in federal funding, a penalty that will be imposed for the state failing to meet the program’s work requirements.

There may be, as the director of the Department of Job and Family Services asserts, a percentage of welfare clients who have made the “personal choice” to stay home and collect a check. No doubt, they deserve to be removed from the rolls. Yet there is clear danger in the aggressive purging. The effort fails to take into sufficient account that employment and training openings dried up and that the economic collapse hit hardest the poor, the segment of the population least able to rebound quickly. State officials cannot just wash their hands of the destitute, on or off welfare.