Columbus Dispatch, May 5, 2008: Soaring costs for gas, food may strain welfare reform

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Monday, May 5, 2008 3:08 AM

By Rita Price


Heather Algoe adds green beans to a garden she planted in the backyard of her in-laws’ home in Circleville. Six-year-old son Christian supervises.

CIRCLEVILLE, Ohio — The vegetable garden is going in now, and Heather Algoe will tend it with a fervor not afforded a mere hobby.

She needs this food to feed her family.

With every bit of extra cash swallowed by the gas tank, Ohio’s working poor are making difficult, sometimes humiliating choices: They’re shutting off utilities, pawning keepsakes, lining up at food pantries and turning to county welfare offices by the thousands to apply for gasoline vouchers and cards.

“I’m scared,” said Rojanne Woodward, director of the Pickaway County Department of Job and Family Services. “How much longer can we expect low-income people to keep working with prices the way they are?”

Families in rural areas are hit hard-est, especially when they must drive from their home counties to metro areas for work. Algoe and her husband, Gregory, who works in Columbus, spend more than $450 a month on gas, a figure that exceeds 20 percent of their take-home pay.

Mrs. Algoe swallowed hard and turned to Woodward’s office for help last week.

“I received a $60 gas card, and I appreciate it. I’m not complaining,” said the 27-year-old mother of two. “But it’s not making a dent.”

At least 56 of Ohio’s 88 counties are issuing gas cards and vouchers when they can, drawing from a pot of discretionary funds designed to help former welfare recipients or other low-income families keep jobs.

But the help is temporary, and the funding is running out. Directors of job and family services departments say they worry that a tipping point is near. If growing numbers of low-wage earners feel they cannot afford to work, will some resort to the old cash-assistance program that welfare reform has sought to eliminate?

“That is our fear,” said John Fisher of the Licking County Department of Job and Family Services.

“If you look at welfare reform over the last 10 years, it has been very successful in transitioning people from cash-assistance programs to employment. And that is great,” he said. “But you have to acknowledge that these also are the most vulnerable citizens in an economic downturn.”

High gas and food prices also strain other critical supports for the working poor, such as food stamps and Medicaid coverage. In Licking County, 7,778 residents received food stamps in 2003; the number has surged to 13,015.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to create a safety net,” Fisher said. “But those resources are being stretched.”

State officials said it’s too soon to tell whether the sour economy will nudge welfare rolls up after years of decline. The number of Ohioans receiving cash assistance did increase 3 percent in a year, from 165,777 in March 2007 to 171,222 in March of this year.

Jack Frech, director of the Athens County Department of Job and Family Services, said the state and federal government have done little or nothing to help low-income families manage the spike in food and gas costs.

“This is having a huge, disastrous effect,” he said. “And there seems to be no sense of crisis or emergency coming from the (Strickland) administration or the Statehouse. This is just cruel.”

Joel Potts, senior policy analyst for the Ohio Job and Family Services Directors Association, said counties are in uncharted waters. “In every meeting I’m in, the issue is gas cards and whether to issue them,” Potts said. “It’s causing a shift in priorities. And by next summer, we might be saying the same thing about food.”

For the most part, urban counties with public-transportation systems, such as Franklin and Cuyahoga, continue to issue bus passes rather than gas vouchers, except when help is needed to get to medical appointments, officials said.

But even in the cities, people’s budgets are collapsing. Buses don’t accommodate all work schedules, and wages aren’t keeping up.

“I’ve turned off cable, I’m having my phone disconnected, and I’ve pawned just about anything I can carry,” said Brian Sturgill, a single father of four who works at a Downtown parking lot.

When other drivers carpool, his tips decline. If he were to receive much of a raise, food-stamp benefits for his children would be cut. “It’s crazy,” he said.

Mrs. Algoe, who began taking her college classes online to save gas money, said politicians ignore the devastation while oil companies make incredible profits. “We’re working hard, and we can’t make it,” she said. “It’s a ridiculous cycle.”

This year’s garden, she said, will be twice as big as last year’s. “I know the air, the sun and the rain are free — for now.”

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