Each year, the release of new census data from the year before offers a chance to learn the latest changes in population shifts, poverty rates, insurance coverage and other important indicators within our communities. Data and policy wonks are often quick to point to certain policy decisions and social trends that drive the outcomes shown in the new data. With the release of the 2017 one-year census estimates, I was particularly eager to look at how access to public food assistance for those living in or near poverty has changed in Ohio since 2014; the year the state reinstated work requirements for the program.
…there were about two times as many households receiving food assistance than there were families living in poverty
Federal law requires able-bodied adults without dependents (“ABAWDs”) to work, or participate in certain work-related activities, for at least 80 hours a month in order to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for more than three months within a three year period. This requirement was waived nationwide during the years of recovery following the 2008 recession, but was reinstated in 2014. However, states are permitted to waive the work requirement in jurisdictions with high unemployment rates relative to the national average. In Ohio, the Kasich administration implemented this waiver at the county level, granting exemptions from the work requirement to 16 counties.
In Ohio, the ratio of households receiving SNAP benefits to families living below 100 percent of the federal poverty level was 2.13 in 2017. In other words, there were about two times as many households receiving food assistance than there were families living in poverty. It is important to note that the federal household income ceiling for SNAP eligibility is 130 percent of the federal poverty level (for a family of three, this means an income of below $26,546), meaning every household receiving SNAP benefits can be considered near poverty, if not in poverty. Ohio’s SNAP-poverty ratio has changed little over the past three years. In each of these years, the Northeast Ohio counties and Ohio’s eight largest urban counties have closely matched the statewide figures. No Northeast Ohio or urban counties were exempt from SNAP work requirements from 2014 through the end of Federal Fiscal Year (FFY) 2017.
…residents of Jefferson and Scioto counties are more than 90 percent white, as are the rest of the counties exempt from SNAP work requirements, higher rates of SNAP receipts in these counties could indicate racial disparities for access to food assistance due to work requirements.
My question was whether the one-year estimates, from 2015 to 2017, for the counties exempt from the ABAWD work requirements in SNAP would indicate significant disparities in access to food assistance for those in or near poverty, based on SNAP-poverty ratios. Unfortunately, one-year estimates were only available for two of the 16 counties that were exempt from the work requirement through FFY 2017, due to the fact that most of these counties have small populations. However, in the two exempt counties where data is available, Jefferson and Scioto counties, SNAP and poverty estimates paint an interesting, albeit incomplete, picture of how work requirements may impact food access.
While the SNAP-poverty ratio remained flat in the rest of the state, Jefferson and Scioto counties saw this figure rise from 2.28 in 2015, to 2.80 in 2017. In other words, approximately three households receive SNAP benefits for every one family living in poverty in these counties.
The difference between the SNAP-poverty ratios of Jefferson and Scioto counties compared to the rest of the state indicates that families living in poverty in these two counties are approximately 23 percent more likely to receive SNAP benefits than low-income families elsewhere in the state. Given that residents of Jefferson and Scioto counties are more than 90 percent white, as are the rest of the counties exempt from SNAP work requirements, higher rates of SNAP receipts in these counties could indicate racial disparities for access to food assistance due to work requirements. As previously mentioned, none of Ohio’s urban counties, where minority populations are more concentrated, were exempt from the work requirement before 2017. The map below identifies the counties currently exempt from SNAP work requirements, a number that expanded from 16 to 26 counties on October 1, 2017. All of these counties remain in almost entirely in rural areas.
No Northeast Ohio or urban counties were exempt from SNAP work requirements from 2014 through the end of Federal Fiscal Year (FFY) 2017.
Since exemptions from SNAP work requirements are granted on the basis of high unemployment rates, it is also worthwhile to look at the latest unemployment rates across Ohio as reported in the new census data. As shown in the below bar graph, the two exempt counties where data is available did not have unemployment rates that differed substantially from Ohio’s urban counties, or the state as a whole, in 2017. In fact, Scioto County had an unemployment rate slightly lower than that of the rest of the state.
Ohio uses the 24-month average unemployment rate from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, not census estimates, to determine which counties are granted exemptions. But the 2017 census estimates suggest that some counties with comparable unemployment rates may not be granted the same hardship forgiveness as currently exempt counties.
Of course, we are not able to draw any conclusions about the effects of work requirements on access to food assistance based on data from only two counties with exemptions from the requirement. It will be interesting to study this question further when the five-year census estimates, which will be available for all Ohio counties, are released later this year. Additionally, The Center for Community Solutions will further explore the issue of racial disparities in SNAP enrollment in relation to work requirements in a report that will be released in October.
 Northeast Ohio counties include Ashtabula, Columbiana, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Mahoning, Medina, Portage, Stark, Summit, Trumbull and Wayne counties.
 Ohio’s urban counties include Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, Lucas, Mahoning, Montgomery, Summit and Stark counties.