This year, we will reflect on a major milestone in social welfare history known as welfare reform. Enacted in 1996, TANF, or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, provides minimal cash assistance for very poor families with children, and funds other programs and services that aim to promote self-sufficiency. TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) as the major cash assistance program for poor families in the country, and much has been written about the fallout that has occurred since (including our recent study on the current reach of cash benefits in Ohio). Many anti-poverty advocates concur that, over time, the implementation of TANF has resulted in the erosion of the safety net for poor children and families. But what about a safety net for those without children? As we reflect on 20 years since welfare reform, it’s worth brushing off the dust on another now long-defunct safety net program—General Assistance.
While welfare for poor families continues to exist, albeit barely, as a shadow of its former self, General Assistance is dead entirely in Ohio, and has been for some time. General Assistance, or GA, was a cash benefit available to low-income Ohio adults without dependents, who were ineligible for other safety net programs. Recipients included those with disabilities who may not have met the criteria for other programs, like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), as well as those who were “able-bodied” but faced significant barriers to employment, or who struggled to find work to match their skills. The program grew through the 1980s as the job market changed, resulting in an increase in participants. Ohio once had one of the largest GA programs in the country. However, over time, the program became less politically popular and was a clear target for a strained state budget.
During the Voinovich administration, after policymakers slowly chipped away at the program for years through the imposition of time limitations and benefit reductions, it was dismantled almost entirely in 1995. After that time, “employable,” or able-bodied, persons were no longer eligible; the disability assistance program was retained for those unable to work due to a disability but not eligible for SSI (now called Disability Financial Assistance in Ohio). At the time the program ended, about 50,000 individuals were receiving benefits. Towards the end, benefits amounted to about $100 per month. GA also provided medical assistance for recipients, who at the time, could not qualify for other health care programs, like Medicaid. Ohio chose to end this benefit, along with cash assistance, when the program was dissolved for the able-bodied population (though Governor Voinovich proposed a separate state-funded health care program for this group, which never came to fruition)[i]. It wasn’t until Medicaid was expanded in 2014 that low-income childless adults would regain coverage. Today, about 6,500 remain on the state’s Disability Financial Assistance benefit, which offers a maximum benefit amount of $115 per month.
At the time, the termination of the GA program prompted anger and protest from advocates. At one point, in 1992, hundreds of former recipients, stripped of their benefits through the initial round of cuts, protested outside of Governor Voinovich’s office. Some may recall the governor’s tears as he faced the protestors, and his comments, according to The Columbus Dispatch, “I’m doing the best I can with what we got. I really do love my fellow man.” Advocates feared the worst for those losing benefits and warned of dire consequences, suggesting people would be left to die in the streets. However, over time, for many, advocacy efforts shifted as federal legislation prompted welfare reform for children and families, and since then, the demise of General Assistance has been a fait accompli. And, as the dire consequences of GA termination didn’t immediately come to pass, legislators in support of stricter welfare reform efforts used this as ammunition to justify short time-limits and strict work requirements.
Ohio was not alone in terminating this program. During the same period, many other states dismantled their GA programs as well, and the trend has continued. Politically, preserving cash assistance for able-bodied childless adults has become a risky proposition. While other states continue to maintain GA programs, benefits are limited and implementation is often haphazard. A 2015 analysis by The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that these programs are slowly becoming obsolete. Today, only 26 states continue to operate a GA program –less than half of these states serve childless adults without disabilities.
As benefit reductions were occurring in Ohio, a 1992 Case Western Reserve University study found that in Cuyahoga County, there was no change in employment among recipients who lost benefits (indicating that most did not find work after leaving the program) and a small increase in the number of people lacking permanent housing. Researchers at Case found GA recipients were more likely to have physical or mental conditions, and many had sporadic work histories. A decrease in manufacturing jobs meant that many GA recipients couldn’t find work, but other barriers to employment existed as well. For many, their skills didn’t match available jobs. The loss of benefits placed strain on family and friends, who may have provided support in order to help former recipients meet basic needs. In a New York Times article published in 1995 after the program ended, Case Western Reserve researcher Linda Crowell stated: “They find ways to cope, but there may be impacts on the families that help…. A wife may be abused right now because someone was back in the home that shouldn’t have been.”
The study also reported a possible decline in retail sales in areas where there were high concentrations of GA recipients. Furthermore, a separate 1992 survey of service providers further emphasized the negative consequences of GA benefit reductions and terminations citing that “59%(of providers)found that homeless adults are referring to the lack of or inadequacy of GA as a cause of their homelessness (directly or indirectly).“
In 1992, the authors of the Case study lamented, “The long-term effects of distancing former recipients from the mainstream, depriving them further of the basic necessities of life, and depriving of consumer dollars those neighborhoods with large GA populations are yet to be seen.“ Now, almost 25 years later, we can, to some degree, examine the fallout. In some ways, little has changed in many parts of Ohio for low-income childless adults. These individuals are frequently shut out of many safety net programs, like public housing, and jobs are still hard to come by in many areas of the state. Poverty rates in Ohio continued to hold steady at embarrassing levels. Fifteen percent of adults between the ages of 18 and 64 live in poverty; 7.2 percent live in deep poverty. Overall, 22 percent of low-income households in Ohio have no children, which means that these households are ineligible for TANF-cash assistance and many other family benefits. For individuals living with a disability in Ohio, roughly a quarter live in poverty. According to the Ohio Poverty report, almost 30 percent of Ohioans without a high school degree live in poverty. The unemployment rate among those with no high school degree is almost 20 percent. Between 2007 and 2014, Ohio saw a 12 percent increase in its homeless population. Many have named poverty, joblessness, and a lack of education as significant contributors to the state’s soaring opiate epidemic.
And the safety net for this population continues to weaken. As a result of a decision made by the Kasich Administration in 2014, childless adults must now complete a work requirement of 20 hours per week to retain food stamp benefits, which resulted in a decline in participants, and placed greater strain on local food pantries. Ohio is now pursuing a program that would require premiums for many Medicaid recipients, including those childless adults finally granted coverage through the expansion. Likewise, legislation (H.B. 394) was introduced last year which would severely limit unemployment compensation for jobless workers, another proposed change that would have a significant impact on this group.
As we seek to protect Medicaid for this population, it’s worth considering that many of these individuals have no cash income. And while many will point to finding work as the obvious solution, barriers to employment continue to exist, such as a lack of transportation, physical or mental health challenges, or a lack of education or job skills. A 2015 study conducted by the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, examining 5,000 Franklin County able-bodied adults without dependents, illustrated some of these challenges. According to the research, 36 percent of those assessed had criminal backgrounds, 40 percent lacked reliable transportation, and 33 percent reported physical or mental limitations. Thirty percent never graduated from high school.  However, in Ohio and many other states, low-income individuals without children are often deemed unworthy of help. Without supports, these individuals may end up homeless, or involved in our mental health, substance abuse, or criminal justice systems.
As cash assistance for low-income families with children continues to erode, reviving cash benefits for able-bodied adults is likely a nonstarter. However, there are avenues to help protect childless adults from the impact of abject poverty. Strengthening the EITC for working individuals without children is one practical option, as the current tax-structure is particularly unfavorable for this population. Exploring opportunities for subsidized employment presents another option to help jobless workers build job skills and provide work opportunities for those who may struggle to find employment in the private market. Additionally, policies that seek to improve access to drug and alcohol treatment, protect unemployment compensation, and preserve Medicaid benefits, will help to provide a much needed safety-net for this population. As we reflect on the TANF anniversary, and consider future reforms for the program, it’s worth considering strategies to meet the basic needs of all of our citizens living in poverty, regardless of age or household type.
[i] Disability Medical Assistance, a state-funded program that provided medical coverage for very low-income individuals with a chronic condition or disability (but not eligible for SSI, Medicaid, or other benefits) continued to be available for those eligible until it was dismantled in 2009 (though this program also faced cuts and increasing restrictions in the years prior) .
 Coulton, C.J., L. Crowell, and N. Verma. 1993. “How time-limited eligibility affects general assistance clients: an Ohio study shows that few former recipients are finding work.” Public Welfare 51, no. 3: 29-36. Social Work Abstracts, EBSCOhost (accessed May 10, 2016).
 U.S. Census Bureau, American Fact Finder, 2014 5-year estimates