Thousands Could Return To Welfare Rolls

By PAUL SINGER, Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - Beginning in October, thousands of Ohio residents who ran out of welfare benefits under state time limits in 2000 could be eligible to apply for two additional years of assistance.

The October deadline will be a test of how well the state has done in moving people off welfare into permanent jobs, state officials said.

Congress changed federal welfare rules in 1996, setting a maximum five-year time limit for cash assistance. Ohio went a step beyond, setting a 3-year limit in 1997.

But the state also created a safety net: Anyone who used up their three years of welfare could return two years later and seek two more years if they're still in need.

The first group of 4,000 families cut off under the limits in October 2000 could reapply for benefits this October -- but far fewer are likely to do so, said Joel Potts, welfare policy administrator for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

If the state's welfare reform plan has worked, he said, many of those former recipients are now employed and no longer need cash assistance.

"If they come back in large numbers, we have to do a critical look and say, 'Are we missing something here?' If very few of them come back, it will indicate that the time limits have worked," Potts said.

The state policy is not an open door for anyone to return after two years off welfare. Each county is responsible for drafting eligibility criteria requiring an applicant to show a specific hardship or a good-faith effort to obtain employment.

Overall, the state has reduced the number of people on welfare from about 748,000 in March 1992 to 194,000 this July. That includes about 50,000 families still receiving time-limited benefits.

About 22,000 families who used up their three years will be able to reapply for welfare over the next two years.

Potts said the state has already calculated an increase in the number of welfare cases in budget projections, so there should be no shortage of funds for people returning to the rolls.

In Hamilton County in southwest Ohio, "we don't expect a major influx of people asking for a restoration of benefits," said John Young, welfare reform executive.

Most people cut off are still receiving state aid through food stamps, medical care and child care, which make cash assistance less necessary, Young said.

In Summit County, about 2,000 families will be eligible to reapply for benefits between now and January, said Daisy Alford-Smith, director of the county Department of Job and Family Services. Alford-Smith said she hopes no more than 20 percent of that group applies.

"We are hoping we were successful the first time around in making sure that they received the appropriate level of training and they got into employment," she said.

But a low rate of return could also mean counties are setting standards for resuming benefits that are too stringent for families to meet, said John Corlett of the Federation for Community Planning, a social policy research and advocacy group in Cleveland.

"You can't use that as a barometer of whether the time limit policy is successful or not," Corlett said.

People whose benefits were cut off "probably all still qualify for assistance based on incomes alone," Corlett said. "There is nothing that would suggest that their lives have gotten any easier."

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)