Federal food assistance already includes a work requirement. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applies to “able-bodied” recipients up to age 49 who do not have dependent children younger than 18. On Tuesday, the Ohio House Health Committee took up legislation that would toughen the rules. House Bill 200 would extend the upper age limit to 60 and narrow the exemption to those with children younger than age 6. Recipients would be required to work at least 20 hours or attend school or job training.

Proponents argue that people who can work should work. One lawmaker, state Rep. Don Manning, a New Middletown Republican, added that “rewarding people who are able to work but not working is nothing short of socialism.”

Practically everyone supports work, and it is reasonable in general to expect those without employment to look for a job. As it is, most do. Research from the Brookings Institution shows that roughly three-quarters of food assistance recipients ages 18 to 49 are working, or between jobs. So, the question for supporters of an expanded work requirement is how much would their proposal accomplish. Is the matter as simple those who can work should?

What about the remaining one-quarter of recipients? Nearly all are no longer in the workforce. Many cope with chronic illnesses or otherwise deal with poor health. Some care for ailing family members. Others encounter barriers because of criminal records. A tiny fraction actually qualify as the long-term unemployed. That includes some who are able-bodied and don’t work.

County officials, who would administer the expanded requirement, warn about a lack of cost-effectiveness. They cite the additional paperwork, time and attention involved in tracking and enforcement. They point to the expense, no small factor in view of already strained county budgets. To do what? Discover that a few should be working while others who are unable to work in any realistic way risk losing their access to food assistance?

Then, there is the reality of the job market. If the state’s jobless rate is low, it also is true that six of the 10 most common occupations in the state pay such low wages, less than $26,000 a year, that a household of three needs food assistance to make ends meet. If employers say they are not able to find enough qualified job applicants, they usually are looking for workers with higher skills. For those without such skills, the job market can be a scramble to pull together enough hours amid uncertain scheduling.

Consider, too, the factor of where a recipient resides in the state. That low overall unemployment rate masks regions of hardship. Currently, three dozen counties, mostly along the state’s eastern border or in Appalachia, have received a federal waiver from the work requirement. Nearly half of all food assistance recipients live in these counties. Fifteen of the counties have poverty rates as high as 30 percent.

Yet the proposed legislation would prohibit the state from seeking such a waiver for counties with higher unemployment rates. This restriction also would compound the problems for many African-Americans and Latinos who face greater degrees of joblessness. It would work as a drag on the state economy, especially causing harm in poorer communities, those food assistance dollars no longer going to local businesses.

One of the policy achievements of recent years is that more who are eligible are gaining food assistance. That improves lives. State lawmakers would make better use of their time and state resources finding ways to upgrade the skills of many Ohioans. That is a much larger challenge for the state than recipients of food assistance getting what they somehow don’t deserve.