7 Dec 2014

Ohio Woman Kicked Off Welfare For Not Reporting She Was In a Coma

Kimberly Thompson, 43, says she was lying in a hospital bed when she found out that she would no longer receive government assistance. The letter from the county shocked her: "They basically cut me off of benefits for not reporting I was in a coma," she says.
For a decade, Thompson worked packing boxes in Columbus warehouses for $10 or $12 an hour. She was raising a 15-year-old daughter and managed to pay rent for a trailer she shared with a relative. Then last May Thompson underwent a hysterectomy. Unable to return to strenuous warehouse work, she applied for Medicaid, welfare and food stamps, and enrolled in a computer repair job-training program. But a month later, an untreated infection she'd contracted after surgery worsened, and her organs began to shut down. She spent the next month in a medically-induced coma.
When Thompson woke up, she learned that her cash assistance through the Ohio Works First program as well as her food stamp benefits had been terminated—more than $700 per month in total. Administrators said the county imposed a sanction because she had failed to complete the mandatory work and training requirement for receipt of government assistance. Thompson called the Franklin County, Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services to tell them she was in the hospital. A worker there told her she had two days to verify her hospitalization. Frail and unable to move—she'd had seven toes amputated and says she lost some cognitive capacity—she was unable to get to the county office.
"They told me I'd lost the benefits because I didn't go to class," said Thompson, who since her illness speaks in a trembling voice and gets tired in minutes if she moves around. "How are you supposed to go to class when you're in a coma?"
Advocates for the poor in Ohio say that situations like Thompson's are not uncommon as a several-year-old effort to impose strict work requirements on state welfare and food stamp recipients has led to thousands of families losing aid. Anti-poverty advocates note that even as the state is moving to bolster the medical safety net through Medicaid expansion, it has dramatically slashed its welfare roles since 2011, shrinking the program from 90,000 cases to 60,000 in the last four years. Most of the remaining people relying on cash assistance are children who often live with grandparents.
With no money coming in for three months as she recovered, and too ill to work, Thompson has bounced from one couch to another, living with an ex husband and another relative. Her daughter now lives temporarily with her father.
Under federal welfare reform laws, at least 50 percent of single-parents enrolled in the Temporary Aid to Needy Families program must have a job or be engaged in education or job training. States that fail to meet these numbers face federal fines.
In 2011, Ohio was in that very position. Since the start of the recession, the state had failed to meet the federal work rates, and by 2011, only a third of welfare recipients were engaged in required work activities. Washington threatened to impose a $1.3 million fine. Under pressure, state officials instructed counties to find ways to increase the percentage of welfare recipients working or in training.
"We were under immense federal pressure," says Joel Potts, who heads the County Directors of Job and Family Services association. "Counties were threatened with losing millions of dollars if they did not act to bring up the work participation rate."
Four years later, 56 percent of parents receiving cash assistance are working in Ohio. By that measure, the state policy has been a dramatic success. But according to a 2013 review of the welfare program performed by a research group contracted by the state, many county agencies have reached these numbers not so much by helping poor parents find jobs or enroll in training, but "through a reduction in caseload."
"The way most counties meet the work requirement is to throw people off," said John Frech, the director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services. Frech has been critical of the state trends. His county is unusual in that its welfare program has maintained similar caseload levels since 2011 even as it has connected more of those on the program with jobs and training. "Ohio made this a success from the state's perspective by throwing families off of a program that they need. Rather than working to help poor families, we've left families in a terrible situation."


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