Ohio officials have added 11 more counties for exemptions from work requirements under the food assistance program known as SNAP.
Those counties include Cuyahoga (Cleveland), Lucas (Toledo), Ashtabula, Brown, Crawford, Erie, Hocking, Lorain, Richland, Ross and Vinton.
"Because there's a recognition that there are some residents in those counties that need help, and we don't want to turn our backs on them," says Bret Crow, director of communications for the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services.
WOSU reported Monday on a report by the Center for Community Solutions, which found Ohio’s law disproportionately benefited white rural residents. Ohio exempted residents in counties with high unemployment levels from work requirements to receive food assistance.
The previous 26 counties with exemptions included areas mostly in the eastern and southern parts of Ohio. Ninety-seven percent of Ohio families in those exempt counties are white.
Residents of counties like Cuyahoga and Lucas, which boast larger unemployment numbers within the city, did not originally get exclusions from work exemptions.
As a result, only 5 percent of the state’s African-American population were included in the exempt counties. That's compared to 15 percent of the white population.
But starting October 1, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services expanded the number of exempted counties.
“This change in policy will mitigate the disparate impact of the SNAP work requirements on Ohio’s African-American families and individuals,” says John Corlett, Executive Director of the Center for Community Solutions. “Prior to the policy change, 5 percent of African-American families lived in an exempt county; now 41 percent of African-American families live in an exempt county.”
Ohio planned to use the same criteria to impose work requirements on Medicaid recipients.
Federal officials 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.
Crow clarifies that Ohio only exempts counties from time limits, not the work requirements themselves.
"The waiver does not give recipients a free pass," Crow said in an email.
The study shows that Cleveland in Cuyahoga County has had an unemployment rate averaging about 16 percent overall from 2012-2016, according to U.S. Census data.
Crow said the average unemployment rates in the newly-exempted counties were overall lower in the 2019 fiscall year than they were in 2018.
"So while the counties benefiting from this waiver have seen their economies improve over the past year, we wanted to be sure Ohio’s vulnerable residents were not adversely impacted and federal regulatory options were followed," Crow wrote.
Corlett says inequities still exist among counties.
“The state continues to calculate unemployment rates at the county level rather than the municipal level. This means there are still five large metro areas with high unemployment rates that are not exempt,” says Corlett.
Franklin County is currently not on the exemption list.
State officials will re-evaluate the county exemptions next year.