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Columbus Dispatch, July 24, 2008: Counties urge help for poorest of poor

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Thursday, July 24, 2008 3:26 AM

By Catherine Candisky

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

A decade ago, there were no food pantries in Gallia County. They weren’t needed.

Today, there are nearly a dozen, but they are closed much of the time because there isn’t enough food to meet the soaring demand.

“The situation has gotten desperate. Most of our folks work minimum-wage jobs without any benefits. Parents can’t feed their children, and families cannot see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Sue Barrick, assistant director of the Gallia County Department of Job and Family Services.

Human-services officials in the state’s poorest counties urged state and federal leaders yesterday to provide relief for the poorest of the poor — those who simply do not have enough to pay for housing, food, health care and clothing.

More than 1.5 million Ohioans live in households earning less than the federal poverty level, $21,200 a year for a family of four.

“There is no safety net. The services we are able to offer now don’t constitute a safety net,” said Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services.

At a news conference in Chillicothe, officials from Athens, Gallia, Hocking, Perry, Ross, Scioto and Vinton counties recommended:

• Increasing cash assistance by $100 a month. Currently, the combined benefit of cash and food stamps amounts to about half the poverty level.

• Providing health care to adults with incomes less than 100 percent of the poverty level, $10,400 a year for an individual. Under current state law, childless adults do not qualify for Medicaid unless they are disabled.

• Increasing food-stamp assistance. Currently, monthly benefits are designed as a supplement, providing only enough groceries for a portion of the month.

• Increasing Supplemental Security Income benefits to the elderly and disabled. In Ohio, the average benefit is $430 a month, about 55 percent of the poverty level.

County leaders also said the process for determining eligibility for Medicaid and Social Security Income needs to be overhauled because it is overly bureaucratic, often taking months or years.

Keith Dailey, spokesman for Gov. Ted Strickland, said poverty is a top concern for the governor who recently created a task force to recommend ways to reduce it. The panel will issue short-term recommendations in September and follow-up next year with long-term proposals.

Given the tight state budget, Dailey said, priorities will need to be set. Advocates acknowledged the hefty price tag but said the plight of those living below the poverty level must be the state’s top concern.

Andrea Reik, executive director of Athens County Children Services, said caseworkers report seeing more mental-health issues, substance abuse, maternal depression, homelessness and lack of health care.

“The only jobs in southeast Ohio, at least Athens County, are fast-food, and you can’t live on that,” Reik said.

Robert Gallagher, director of the Ross County Department of Job and Family Services, said that more than a decade after welfare reform, most low-income Ohioans have moved off government assistance and into jobs. Those still on the rolls are primarily children and adults who are either too ill or dysfunctional to work.

“The question is: Are we satisfied that a certain segment of people will be destitute?”

ccandisky@dispatch.com

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