WASHINGTON -- The state of Ohio has asked the Obama administration for leeway from certain welfare rules that dictate what kinds of "work activities" a poor person can participate in while receiving benefits.
The request makes Ohio the first state to seek a "welfare waiver" under an initiative the Obama administration announced in 2012 -- one that Mitt Romney's presidential campaign and every Republican in Congress dubiously claimed "gutted" the landmark welfare reform law of 1996.
One of the several problems with this claim was that no states had even applied for a waiver after the administration invited states to do so. Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) has changed that.
Kasich just so happens to be running for president, and has sought to assert himself as more moderate than other candidates in the Republican primary. Most notably, he expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.
Supporting the welfare waiver sets up a stark contrast with his party's 2012 standard bearer and Republicans in Congress, who have twice voted to prohibit the Obama administration from considering the waivers.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is reviewing the request from Kasich's administration, according to The Columbus Dispatch. The request would only apply to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which serves roughly 4 million Americans, including more than 100,000 Ohioans -- mostly children. Federal rules require states to make sure a certain percentage of TANF beneficiaries spend a specific amount of time each week in "work activities," which can include gainful employment but also things like school and vocational training.
Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a welfare expert with the Center for Law and Social Policy, said Kasich's request reflects broader recognition that TANF's work rules are too restrictive.
"Ohio’s waiver request highlights the growing consensus from states of both parties that the federal work participation requirements are overly narrow, overly process-focused, and do not reflect the realities of today’s economy that demands higher levels of education and skill for family-supporting jobs," Lower-Basch said in email.
She also noted that the House Ways and Means Committee, which Paul Ryan chaired until he became House speaker last week, had considered draft legislation this year that would have responded to some state concerns about the rules.
Anticipating conservative objections, a fact sheet from Ohio's Department of Job and Family Services insists the state is not requesting an exemption from federal work requirements.
"The state will continue to require TANF recipients to engage in work-related activities for the federally required minimum hours and sanction those who fail to comply," the document says. "Increasing flexibility will ensure Ohio has a stronger ability to assign only those activities that improve employment outcomes for individuals receiving assistance."
The fact sheet explains what the state wants with its waiver:
- Remove the distinction between variously weighted work activities to allow recipients to engage in activities that make sense based on their individual circumstances.
- Increase the limit on vocational education training from 12 to 36 months. In Ohio, a number of in-demand jobs require a certification that takes more than 12 months to complete.
- Increase the job search and job readiness time limits from six to 12 weeks and remove the four-consecutive-week limit. Stringent limits on job searches make it harder to connect individuals to employment that fits their skill set.
- Remove the monthly cap (but maintain the annual cap) on good cause hours to provide more flexibility to manage extenuating circumstances impacting work participation, such as caring for sick children who cannot attend child care.