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Welfare Directors Survey Shows Substance Abuse, Transportation Keep People From Working

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Several factors lead to a prolonged period of unemploymnt, study says

As House leaders put forward a budget that they say will help people out of poverty, the directors of the state’s job and family services agencies say they have some answers as to why people need public assistance.

Substance abuse problems, lack of transportation and high school diplomas are the issues that people on welfare or public assistance face. That’s the conclusion of a survey done by a task force with the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors Association.

Joel Potts heads that group, and says, “There are a lot of things that have happened in these people’s lives to get them to the situation where they’re so heavily dependent on public assistance programs, and it’s not going to be overnight that they’re suddenly going to get off.”

And the survey also shows that the best way to help people who have become reliant on public assistance is one-on-one case management that’s person-centered – meaning one-on-one appointments, home visits, and intensive interventions with each recipient. Potts says means a lot lighter load than caseworkers across the state are often managing now – which can be 150 cases or more.

“These things are expensive,” Potts says. “If you’re going to get people into meaningful work and training programs, they have a lot of barriers and a lot of challenges that we’re going to have to do.”

But lawmakers say they continue to be concerned about the financial sustainability of Medicaid and other safety net programs, and whether those programs are helping them out of poverty or creating a longterm reliance on them.

Rep. Robert Sprague (R-Findlay) noted that the House version of the budget calls for the state to seek a waiver from the federal government to put a work requirement on Medicaid, and that lawmakers may try to expand that to other programs.

“We don’t want to kick people off the system prematurely, but we feel there has to be a time limit for being on the governmental programs,” said Sprague. “There comes a time when people need to get back to work. So we’re going to examine that.”

But those involved in the survey say it shows county agencies are dealing with people who have drug and alcohol problems, who don’t have reliable, affordable transportation, or didn’t graduate from high school – and sometimes all three.

So the work requirement that lawmakers say will help them transition to the workforce may not be possible, says David Dombrosky is the director of the Clark County Job and Family Services agency in Springfield. “To really engage comprehensive case management, we have to meet people where they are, not by some cookie-cutter set definition of what somebody thinks is best for people generically,” Dombrosky says.

The county welfare directors’ survey also shows a situation that seems simple, and yet complex – often, a lack of available jobs is what’s keeping people from working. That’s not what Rep. Sprague says he’s hearing from employers in his area.

“In a lot of cases, the employers tell us they can’t find people that are willing to show up to work – number one – or committed to the job,” said Sprague. “And number two – they can’t pass the drug test. Those seem to be the two greatest barriers.”

But Dombrosky says the idea that anyone who wants to work can do so presumes that there are jobs available in every local community and that the skills of those in the workforce match the needs of employers. 

“So it’s a puzzle that we have to put all the right pieces in place at the right time in order to actively engage people and some people take longer than others and how we define and achieve success varies by those individuals,” says Dombrosky.

And Dombrosky and other officials say requiring work for certain benefits may not be allowed under the rules of some federal programs, so any discussion about that needs to keep those regulations in mind.