COLUMBUS, Ohio — Legal advocates for the poor have filed a civil rights complaint with the federal government over the state's move to enforce work requirements for food stamp beneficiaries in most counties, saying the decision has disproportionately impacted minorities in urban areas.
Ohio previously had not enforced the federal welfare-to-work requirements. But officials at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services reinstated the rules last year in most Ohio counties citing an improved economy.
The state sought a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exempt 16 high-unemployment counties from the work requirements, which the federal agency approved.
The rules require able-bodied adults age 18 to 50 without dependent children to spend at least 20 hours working, job training or volunteering each week to get food stamps. The exempted counties are: Adams, Brown, Clinton, Coshocton, Highland, Huron, Jefferson, Meigs, Monroe, Morgan, Muskingum, Noble, Ottawa, Perry, Pike and Scioto.
But advocates say the decision has had a disparate impact on minorities in the state's urban counties, while mostly white recipients in exempted rural areas have benefited.
The Legal Aid Society of Columbus, the Ohio Poverty Law Center and others filed the administrative complaint Friday with the USDA against Republican Gov. John Kasich's administration.
Statewide, about 1.75 million people get food stamps. About a third are minorities, according to the groups. Most live in urban areas not included in the waiver.
Advocates said in the waiver counties, the food stamp program serves about 94 percent white recipients and nearly 6 percent minority individuals.
"This decision has unfairly made access to nutrition assistance more difficult for many minority Ohioans," the groups' attorney wrote in their compliant.
Angela Terez, a spokeswoman for the state's job and family services department, said Ohio's intent was not to single out any particular group. "Our intent was to help those who needed help."
Ohio has provided resources to counties to help implement employment and training programs for those who need to meet the work requirements, she said.
"Lots of things can count toward this requirement — even searching for a job can count toward the requirement," Terez said.
Kate McGarvey, an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Columbus, said it's up to the agriculture department to determine whether to investigate the complaint. The agency is not required to hold a hearing.
The groups want the waiver extended to all 88 counties.