Lancaster Eagle Gazette (Ohio), June 16, 2008: New task force to tackle poverty

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The Eagle-Gazette Staff

LANCASTER – More than two-thirds of the 12,000 telephone calls Fairfield County Job & Family Services receives each month are from people who need financial assistance or access to health care.

“Many of these families have worked all their lives. They’re not asking to own a house or even to send their children to college. All they’re asking for is to be able to eat and to take their children to the doctor when they’re sick and to be able to get to work,” said Laura Holton, community services director for JFS.

Holton, like other local social service providers, hopes an initiative recently established by Gov. Ted Strickland will help identify solutions for the growing poverty problem.

Strickland signed an executive order May 28 establishing the Ohio Anti-Poverty Task Force, which will develop recommendations aimed at reducing the number of Ohioans living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level – about $21,000 for a family of four.

The task force is part of an ongoing effort to “make Ohio a better place to work and to live,” said Amanda Wurst, deputy communications director for Strickland.

“The governor is deeply concerned about the poverty issues that Ohioans live with and deal with each day. The purpose of the Anti-Poverty Task Force is to come with pragmatic solutions to poverty,” she said.

The task force will consist of low- to moderate-income Ohioans, representatives from state and local social service agencies and advocacy groups and other stakeholders.

The governor’s office plans to establish working groups throughout the state to discuss what can be done to help those in need.

Officials at local social service agencies already have started to weigh in about the issue, calling for increased funding for programs and services targeting that population such as Medicaid and the Home Energy Assistance Program.

“The governor needs to put money where he says his heart is,” Holton said.

About 6 percent of Fairfield County’s 140,729 residents live in poverty. Of those, nearly half – 47 percent – are female-headed households and one quarter are married couples. And there are about 17,000 Medicaid recipients, more than two-thirds of whom are low- to moderate-income children and families.

Community Action recently received a $30,000 technical assistance grant from the Ohio Department of Development aimed at helping individuals and families navigate the Ohio Benefit Bank – a web-based computer program designed to connect low- and moderate-income Ohioans with free tax preparation, tax credits and public benefits such as food stamps and childcare subsidies.

That money, along with a sizable grant from the United Way of Fairfield County, will be used to fund a new staff position to help residents access those benefits.

Kellie Ailes, executive director for Lancaster-Fairfield Community Action Agency, applauds the Strickland administration for actively working to combat poverty.

“Since Strickland took office, there has been more emphasis and energy directed at this problem,” she said.

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