What is the result of welfare reform, now two decades later? That is the worthy question addressed in a report, released on Monday, by the Center for Community Solutions. Tara Britton and Brie Luscheck of the Cleveland-based think tank find that the safety net for the poorest Ohioans has been shrunk substantially and disappeared for many.

Consider that in 2005, 180,000 Ohioans received cash assistance. By April of this year, the number of recipients had dropped to 93,000, with 90 percent children. The share of Ohioans living in deep poverty who receive cash assistance declined from 28 percent in 2010 to 15 percent last year. Deep poverty translates to an income at 50 percent or less of the federal poverty level ($10,390 a year for a family of three).

All the while, the state’s poverty rate has increased since 1997 from 11.6 percent to 14.6 percent today. More, as the study notes, the state has $522 million sitting in its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families fund, the replacement program to aid the needy created through welfare reform.

Why isn’t more of that funding going to help the poorest Ohioans?

The study reminds that reducing poverty isn’t a stated goal of the TANF program. Welfare reform established work requirements and time limits for cash assistance. The federal government set its limit at 60 months. Ohio allows 36 months. Thus, many of the poorest Ohioans do not meet the work requirements or their access to cash assistance has expired.

As it is, the state wants to drive a larger portion of the TANF money into child care. That sounds reasonable. Child care, as the study notes, is a key work support for poor households, and the state has a promising initiative, Step Up To Quality, that seeks to enhance the education component of its licensed providers.

It also is true that Ohio already outpaces 46 states in the share of funding directed to child care. The study adds that while child care resources can be tapped elsewhere at the state and federal level, TANF dollars are the lone option for direct income support. Research shows income support works when linked to well-conceived and implemented work requirements. Children benefit through improved classroom performance, increased high school graduation and college entry.

That goes even for the average TANF cash assistance of $203.58 a month in Ohio.

How, then, to get that assistance to more Ohioans in deep poverty, better utilizing the dollars available? The study recommends, among other things, more fully using the hardship exemption permitted in state law, making available an additional 24 months of cash assistance. The state currently provides exemptions to 0.3 percent of eligible families. The law allows up to 20 percent.

Adding to the exemptions isn’t something that would break the state or somehow see taxpayers exploited. These Ohioans are in dire need. A small sum of money would elevate lives, however modestly. After two decades, welfare reform offers a lesson. While it makes sense to encourage work, and that also can be done better, the poor are still with us. They deserve help.