A Senate Republican from Lancaster is seeking to restrict eligibility requirements on poor Ohioans seeking government assistance paying for groceries and health care.
The proposed legislation comes during a pandemic that has killed about 450,000 Americans. Nearly 1 in 10 households said during a survey last month that they often or sometimes don’t have enough to eat, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Sen. Tim Schaffer presented Senate Bill 17 to the Senate Government Oversight and Reform Committee on Wednesday.
Under the bill, the state government would use a stingier set of considerations when deciding whether to administer benefits in programs like the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program, often known as “food stamps;” or Medicaid, a federal and state-funded health insurance program that covers costs of care for people who are poor, older, disabled, or pregnant.
Specifically, the bill would:
- Block households with assets (cash or in bank accounts) worth more than $2,250 from SNAP eligibility.
- Impose a work or education requirement to receive Medicaid benefits.
- Restrict exemptions to the work requirement, including raising the minimum age to opt out to 65 from 55.
- Revert to a “change reporting” system instead of the current “simplified reporting.” Anti-hunger activists say this means SNAP recipients would need to report any change of weekly income from things like an extra shift at work. Under the simplified system, they must only report changes that take them above the eligibility threshold.
Anti-hunger advocates blasted the legislation, alleging it would only add more bureaucracy to an already onerous system; eject Ohioans from a safety net during a pandemic; and combat a nonexistent problem of widespread benefits fraud.
“It’s ludicrous and it’s unhelpful,” said Kelsey Bergfeld, director of Advocates for Ohio’s future, which lobbies for social services like affordable housing and food security.
Schaffer said Wednesday the bill is an effort to limit fraud and abuse of what he described as porous systems that enable them both. He said the bill would “close loopholes” to “prioritize and protect the needy.”
There’s no evidence of widespread fraud within Ohio’s SNAP system. In 2015, then-State Auditor Dave Yost investigated the roughly $1.3 billion it administered in benefits during a six-month period. The audit alleged about $24,000 in benefits were used from 36 dead people. It identified separate instances of “unusual activity” on a small scale but did not allege any widespread fraud.
An Ohio Jobs and Family Services spokesman said in 2017, the most recent year the data is available, Ohio’s county agency investigators established 2,465 instances of SNAP fraud, totaling $4,456,726. This amounts to .3% of the SNAP caseload and .2% of the SNAP dollars issued that year.
The switch to “change reporting” will impose paperwork and reporting requirements on workers for things like overtime or picking up extra shifts, according to Rachel Cahill, a consultant who works with different entities combatting hunger.
For all the hassle, it won’t save the state money, she said, given beneficiaries already must report any income change that puts them over the eligibility threshold.
“It punishes working people,” she said. “Whose income fluctuates? People who work.”
Of about 1.47 million Ohioans receiving SNAP benefits in November, the average benefit was $188 per month, according to the Department of Job and Family Services.
As evidence of fraud, Schaffer cited a finding from President Barack Obama’s administration roughly 10 years ago stating that $753 million in federal food aid is spent fraudulently each year. He claimed this comes out to $26.5 million in annual SNAP fraud from Ohio “by my calculations.”
He also claimed 1 in 5 SNAP recipients own assets worth more than $100,000. The finding comes from the Foundation for Government Accountability, a social welfare dark money group that seeks to restrict welfare eligibility at statehouses around the U.S.
FGA reached its conclusion based on data from what it calls a “proprietary microsimulation model estimating distribution of individuals affected by restoring the asset test.”
A Schaffer aide did not respond to a request to explain what this means.
“Can we look our small businesses in the eye and tell them that they had to accept more tax increases to pay for unemployment benefits for identity thieves, incarcerated felons, people who already have jobs, or people who refuse suitable work and leave their own employers without workers?” he said to the committee.
“Can we look our truly needy in the eye and say that paying for fraud is a higher priority than paying for legitimate claims?”
As a means to combat fraud, the bill would require EBT (SNAP) cards to contain a picture of the recipient — a proposal Schaffer led through the Ohio House in 2017 but died in the Senate. The nonpartisan Legislative Service Commission, which analyzes policies for lawmakers, estimated this idea would cost the state about $1 million to $3 million per year (half of which would be covered by the federal government).
During the hearing, Rep. Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati, asked Schaffer about this price tag. Schaffer disputed the finding, claiming there are cheaper alternatives.
The bill also requires the Medicaid Director to enter into “data matching agreements” with the State Lottery Commission and Casino Control Commission. The Medicaid Director would search a list of anyone with “substantial lottery or gambling winnings” and cross-check it against a list of Medicaid recipients to see if it affects anyone’s eligibility.
Senate President Matt Huffman, R-Lima, said Wednesday he hasn’t read the latest iteration of the bill but probably will support it, given his previous sponsorship of bills to require photos on EBT cards or Medicaid work requirements.
This article was updated Thursday morning with comment from ODJFS.