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Ohio's SNAP Work Requirements Disproportionately Affect Black Residents

Charles Barilleaux

While Ohio will allow some counties out of work requirements for food assistance, the state's policy means that most African-Americans recipients will not be exempt.

A new report from the non-partisan think tank Center for Community Solutions finds that Ohio's law, which exempts counties with high unemployment levels from SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) work requirements, disproportionately benefits white rural residents.

To put a number on it: 97 percent of Ohio families in those exempt counties are white.

“There certainly are other urban areas where maybe the county itself doesn’t have a high unemployment rate, but the cities are experiencing tremendous unemployment difficulties, particularly in minority populations,” says Adam White, policy and planning assistant with the Center for Community Solutions.

Only 5 percent of the state’s African-American population live in exempt counties, the study found, compared to 15 percent of the white population.

Federal officials have allowed states to enact their own policies regarding who can receive SNAP benefits.  Federal law requires able-bodied adults without dependents to work or participate in certain work-related activities, for at least 80 hours a month, in order to receive SNAP benefits for more than three months within a three-year period.

States, however, can waive the work requirement for jurisdictions with unemployment rates that are higher than 120 percent of the national average over a 24-month period.

White, who conducted the study, says Cleveland in Cuyahoga County has had an unemployment rate averaging about 16 percent overall from 2012-2016, according to U.S. Census data. But Cuyahoga County itself is not exempt.

Compare that to Meigs County in southern Ohio, which has an unemployment rate of 11 percent, the highest among exempted counties.

In all, 26 counties in Ohio were exempted from the work requirement: Adams, Clinton, Coshocton, Gallia, Highland Huron, Jackson, Jefferson, Meigs, Monroe, Morgan, Noble, Ottawa, Perry, Pike and Scioto. Most of them stretch along the eastern side of the state down south.

White says most minorities in Ohio do not live in those counties. 

“Minority populations and especially African-Americans in Ohio are much more concentrated in the larger urban counties,” says White. “I think about 40 percent or more of African-American families in Ohio live in one of those eight counties where Ohio’s biggest cities are.”

Statewide, about 35 percent of African-American households receive SNAP benefits, compared to less than 12 percent of white households. But white people make up the vast majority of Ohio's population, with 82.2 percent compared to 12.9 percent of African-Americans.

“There’s a common misconception that African-Americans or minorities are the ones dominating the SNAP roles, but really they mask the proportions that are in poverty,” White says. “Race is not the predictor of SNAP benefits, poverty is, which is what you want to see for these benefit programs that they are actually reaching these people who need them the most.”

State lawmakers now want to extend work exemptions to those getting Medicaid benefits in the same counties exempted under SNAP. White says that would disproportionately benefit rural families, which are mostly white.

Federal officials are considering that proposal.