A concept Gov. John Kasich helped shape more than a decade ago could jeopardize some Ohioans’ eligibility to receive food stamps.

Thousands of able-bodied adults without dependents who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits must comply with a mandatory work requirement of at least 20 hours a week, or participate in job training or volunteer for at least 20 hours a week, to continue in the program.

Kasich issued the directive, effective this month, to make the work requirement mandatory. Those who don’t meet the requirements will lose their food stamp benefits starting in January.

Ohio still qualifies for a federal waiver to exempt food stamp recipients from work requirements, but Kasich extended that exemption to only 16 counties in the state — those with unemployment greater than 120 percent of the national unemployment rate. Most are in Appalachia, and none of the area counties qualify.

The change will affect about 134,000 Ohioans out of more than 1.8 million who receive some form of food assistance. It does not apply to those in the cash assistance program.

The average food stamp allotment is $189 a month.

This week and next, Summit County is trying to meet with 7,500 food stamp recipients to determine if they are exempt from the work requirement. Letters were sent out last week assigning specific meeting times.

“That’s a huge volume of people to meet within a short amount of time. We’ve had to mobilize 30 to 40 people on staff to help,” said Pat Divoky, director of Summit County’s Department of Job and Family Services. “Our goal here is to exempt as many people as possible, or to at least help them meet that work requirement.

“In order for them to have more than three months of food stamps in a 36-month period, they have to meet a work requirement of 20 hours a week or 80 hours a month.”

Exemptions to the work requirement include:

•?If the recipient is under age 18 or over 49.

•?If the person also is receiving unemployment compensation.

•?If the person is pregnant, receives disability or is taking part in an alcohol or drug treatment program.

Assessment process

Appointments have been scheduled through Oct. 11 to give people enough time to be assessed to stay in the program. Participants are being asked to bring current pay stubs (if employed), a statement from a doctor if they have a medical condition and a photo ID. Failure to attend a scheduled assessment will result in the loss of food assistance.

It took Kathy Kellam, 48, of Akron, a little more than an hour Thursday to go through the assessment process, which she described as pretty smooth for “anything government sponsored.” She said she has received food stamps since July 2010, when her job with the Census Bureau ended.

“I signed up for the SCOPE [Summit County Occupational Preparation Experience] program today. I will work four days out of the week. I don’t get cash. I will basically be working for food.”

Kellam called it a temporary fix, saying she will be going back to school at the end of the month. As a veteran who served three years of active duty in the Army in the 1980s, she can attend under the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program.

Kellam wants to become a computer support specialist and said she needs more computer classes. She holds a bachelor of science degree in business management/information systems and an associate’s degree in applied business.

SCOPE, a Summit County in-house program, could be an alternative for many in the target group.

“The SCOPE program gives them an option, because the jobs aren’t out there,” Divoky said. “We are encouraging people to participate in the work experience program because it is much less of a requirement for them.”

SCOPE falls under the Fair Labor Standards Act. It allows the county to divide the value of the food stamp allotment by the minimum wage, which is $7.85 in Ohio. By doing that, the job requirement drops to 24 to 25 hours a month — far less than the 20 hours per week or 80 per month to stay with SNAP.

‘Bad timing’

County officials called the recent change “bad timing” in this economy.

“This was certainly, in our opinion, the wrong time to make it harder for people to get food assistance, not just [in] Summit County, but throughout the state,” said Jason Dodson, chief of staff for County Executive Russ Pry. “When you look at the economic impact this is going to have, we’re talking about taking millions of dollars out of local economies.”

Divoky said she is afraid the work requirements will discourage recipients. She said that in the first few days of the assessments, the department saw 20 to 25 percent absenteeism for people keeping their appointments.

“I don’t know what you can do to get people to go to their meeting. If they don’t show up, they will lose their eligibility,” Summit County Councilman Nick Kostandaras said. “There’s a whole lot of people who are going to be hurting.”

The state mandate comes at the same time the federal government is cutting all food stamp programs by 5 percent.

“We don’t really know how many people throughout the state will be disabled and eligible for an exemption yet. It’s too early to tell,” said John Frech, who heads the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services. “More than half of these folks have no income at all. Many are kids who have aged out of a foster care center, some are homeless, a lot are ex-felons who are having a hard time finding a job because of that and a lot have mental health or substance abuse problems.

“When you think about it,” Frech said, “the people who are the least employable are the people most likely to be in this population, and for most of them the only income they have is food stamps.”

Not new idea

The concept of requiring SNAP recipients to work is not new. wIt was part of a federal regulation Kasich co-sponsored in 1996 as chairman of the House Budget Committee revising the federal welfare systems. The Obama administration suspended work requirements in most states as part of the president’s 2009 economic stimulus package.

Dodson said the end result will be tens of thousands of people across the state of Ohio losing the most basic assistance.

“Ultimately it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that when people don’t have food, your crime is going to increase, your other social service demands are going to increase and your food banks are going to be more [in demand],” he said. “We are taking money away from people who are going to cause strains on other services that county and local governments provide. [The Kasich] administration has never taken those concerns seriously.”

For additional questions, call the Department of Job and Family Services at 330-643-8200.

Marilyn Miller can be reached at 330-996-3098 or mmiller@thebeaconjournal.com.