Ohio civil rights groups are asking federal officials to overrule the governor’s decision to kick thousands of the state’s poorest people off of food stamps rolls last fall, arguing that a state decision to set different work requirements for the program in different parts of the state disproportionately affected racial minorities.
The groups filed a complaint with the Department of Agriculture (USDA) earlier this week, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports, hoping to persuade the feds that Gov. John Kasich’s (R) administration is abusing rules governing eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). That program requires able-bodied adults without dependents to work or spend 20 hours per week in some form of official job training or work program, but that requirement can be waived when economic circumstances get bad enough. All but a handful of states have requested and received such waivers in the wake of the Great Recession.
The entire state of Ohio qualifies for the waivers for fiscal year 2015, but Kasich decided last fall to drop the waivers for 72 of the state’s 88 counties.
Kasich’s move violates the civil rights of Ohioans in those 72 counties, the new USDA complaint alleges, because it spares rural counties that have lower unemployment rates than Ohio’s urban centers. As a result, a handful of mostly-white Appalachian counties are getting easier access to food money than cities like Cleveland where the state’s minority population is concentrated. Nearly two-thirds of Ohio food stamps recipients are white, and just under 38 percent are racial minorities, the Plain Dealer notes, but “white Ohioans accounted for 94.18 percent of all recipients” of food stamps in the counties Kasich spared.
The northeastern Ohio county that is home to Cleveland is also home to more than a fifth of the state’s minority population. It was not exempted from work requirements even though the USDA specifically tags Cuyahoga County as eligible for waivers. The unemployment rate is 7.9 percent in Cuyahoga county, and 11 of the counties that got waivers from Kasich have lower unemployment rates, according to the groups asking for federal intervention. Ohio is one of 10 states to operate under this kind of partial waiver in 2014, and one of only five states that chose a partial waiver despite being eligible for a statewide waiver.
Kasich joined Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), whose move threatened to force 20,000 people off of food assistance, in imposing tougher food stamps rules than the federal government requires despite continued economic hardship throughout his state. Able-bodied people who won’t work are a vanishingly small proportion of food stamp recipients, but Kasich’s move made it harder for more than 100,000 Ohioans to buy food. There is a large body of evidence that tying anti-poverty aid to work requirements is ineffective in general, but when jobs simply aren’t available for those willing to work, the requirements stop making sense entirely. Whether they are tied to food stamps, unemployment insurance, or any other safety net program for the neediest, bureaucratic rules can’t will jobs into existence if companies aren’t hiring.
One easy way to gauge the job prospects faced by able-bodied jobless adults who are seeking SNAP aid is to compare the number of job openings to the number of unemployed people. This risks understating the odds job-seekers face, since millions of jobless people who don’t meet the technical definition of unemployed may also be applying for open positions, but it gives a rough estimate of how easily a jobless person on food stamps could go out and find work.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently updated its Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS), and headlines on the data praised the highest number of job openings in 13 years. But as the Economic Policy Institute points out, the Bureau’s press release described the overall job openings climate as “little changed” 20 separate times. Nationally, there are still more than 2 unemployed people for every job open.
The agency does not calculate the JOLTS figure down to the state level so it is impossible to say what the ratio of job-seekers to job openings is in Ohio. But in the midwest as a whole, BLS found 1.04 million open jobs in June for 2.04 million job-seekers. The regional ratio is therefor 1.96 people job hunting for every available job — only slightly better than the 2.02 national ratio.