Safeguarding the Children

Here’s a Christmas season dilemma for you: How do you really reform the welfare system without hurting children?

If you can solve that one, by all means become a candidate for president. Lots of people would vote for you.

Belmont County Department of Job and Family Services Director Dwayne Pielech spotlighted the problem this week in a discussion with county commissioners. He was at their meeting to discuss a state initiative to bring Ohio into compliance with federal regulations on welfare programs.

For years, Ohio has not complied with federal requirements that certain percentages of welfare recipients be seeking jobs, have them, undergo job training or be involved in some other sort of “beneficial industry.” Now the state, and thus county JFS departments that administer some welfare benefits including food stamps, are trying to change that.

Approximately 200 Belmont County residents, including about 25 two-parent households, receive cash assistance and/or food stamps, Pielech reported. Under the new plan, recipients not meeting the “beneficial industry” requirement will face various sanctions. Penalties range up to loss of welfare benefits for as much as six months.

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as denying welfare benefits to adults – some of whom would love to have jobs but just can’t find them, as well as others who are content to live off the public dole.

As Pielech pointed out, “there may be kids in that household that just lost some assistance, but we have to do it. That’s a federal rule.”

Virtually any attempt to reform welfare or limit spending in other “entitlement” programs runs into the same obstacle. A few years ago, the state of West Virginia attempted to require Medicaid clients to take some responsibility for their own health and health care spending. They were asked to sign personal responsibility agreements, in exchange for enhanced Medicaid benefits. Those who didn’t sign were restricted to basic assistance.

It was a good idea, in my opinion. The personal responsibility pacts weren’t terribly demanding. In essence they required only that Medicaid clients keep health care appointments, not use emergency rooms unless absolutely necessary, and follow doctors’ orders.

But the federal government and many advocates for the poor hated the idea. Why? Because of the tens of thousands of Mountain State children dependent on Medicaid. Why should they be penalized if their parents refused to sign the agreements or didn’t comply with them?

That’s a good – and very troubling – question. It boils down to this: No one wants to penalize needy children because of how their parents behave. So how can welfare assistance be focused to get only to the kids? And how do you separate benefits for children from those their parents receive? Do you require, for example, that homes have dual heating systems so that shiftless adults are cold while their children stay warm?

Sounds absurd, doesn’t it? But that’s the challenge.

Some public assistance already is targeted to children. Free and reduced-price school lunches and breakfasts are an example. But youngsters have to eat dinner and need nourishment during weekends and summer breaks, too.

Restricting public assistance to those who genuinely need it is not an easy task for a number of reasons. For example, the federal government’s required percentages of recipients engaged in “beneficial industry” were set before the recession started. Shouldn’t they be adjusted, at least temporarily, to reflect the increased difficulty of finding a job?

I don’t envy people like Pielech or others involved in social services. Too often they find themselves forced to dole out aid to people who don’t deserve it – and required to cut it for those who need it badly. No doubt, it’s the children who tug hardest at their heartstrings.

So put on your thinking caps, compassionate readers. Any ideas on this one?

Mike Myer can be reached via e-mail at