Franklin County Poverty Reduction Blueprint Solid with Room to Improve
In early June 2019 the Franklin County Commission released Rise Together: A Blueprint to Reduce Poverty in Franklin County at http://bit.ly/2XIRFqs, following nearly a year of gathering information and working with stakeholders. It began a public process of taking the plan to the community in a series of public meetings. These comments were prepared by Kathleen Gmeiner in anticipation of one of those meetings, and were submitted to the Commissioners and the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services.
Comments on Rise Together: A Blueprint to Reduce Poverty in Franklin County
June 19, 2019
Commissioners Boyce, Brown, and O’Grady, I thank for the opportunity to comment on the blueprint released in June 2019 to setting out a path to reduce poverty in Franklin County. I come here today speaking not for any organization. I bring to my comments over forty years of work experience including history as a VISTA volunteer, attorney for three separate legal services programs, and staff for an anti-hunger coalition. I have directed a community health collaborative. I have worked for the Ohio Department of Health and have provided consulting services to community health centers. I have been on the staff of a health care advocacy organization and a children’s advocacy organization. I lived on the South Side of Columbus, just a few blocks from Reeb Center for 16 years, and now reside on the West side of Columbus. I currently serve as a volunteer mentor for the Columbus City Schools.
You should be commended for taking the bold step of creating a plan to confront the high levels of poverty that exist in a county that otherwise is considered one of the economic powerhouses of the state and the country. Rise Together – A Blueprint for Reducing Poverty in Franklin County (hereinafter “blueprint”) is well organized in its focus on the domains of jobs, housing, health and youth. These are broad spaces in which policy changes and programming efforts can make a difference to families and individuals as they work to realize a life that is stable and nurturing to their children and themselves. The goals, while bold, are realistic and invite many partners in the County to be part of the process to reduce poverty. The county is also to be commended for identifying within each domain certain actions that the county itself can take to move the plan forward, particularly what it will do in terms of its own wage levels to model what the rest of the county should do. And of great importance, the blueprint reflects a thoughtful discussion about the relationship of racism and poverty and commits to the necessity of addressing racism and its legacy in our County.
My biggest concern is that there are some major steps the Commissioners could take, primarily in the oversight role of the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services and the Franklin County Jail that if not taken are missed opportunities in the effort to link those living in poverty to career -path jobs and to provide the supports needed to secure and retain those jobs.
I have organized my comments within the four domains of jobs, housing, health and youth. I have selected specific issues on which to comment. After each proposal for an addition to the blueprint I suggest specific language that could be inserted into the blueprint.
The County is to be commended for identifying the necessity to bring jobs to neighborhoods and affordable housing and transportation to good-paying jobs. The blueprint also recognizes the importance of offering job training that results in being hired. And high marks to the blueprint for recognizing the critical importance of childcare that is affordable and available to help people move out of poverty.
Within the domain of jobs, there are some specific issues that are either explicitly or implicitly contained in the report that I think are worthy of crafting a specific action step around. These are “benefit cliffs” and “justice system involvement.”
The blueprint identifies “benefit cliffs” as a major barrier to career advancement. (Chapter Four—Stakeholder Voices, What Can Be Done, page 19). We all know that people turn down promotions with accompanying raises in order to hang onto Medicaid or a housing subsidy because the extra $50-100 month resulting from the promotion or job change will not make up for the loss of those family-sustaining benefits. We also know that benefit cliffs are usually structured into state and/or federal law.
I believe that the County could commit to working with the state and federal government to create an innovative solution to the benefit cliff problem. Possibly a “waiver” of federal and state law could be secured that would enable beneficiaries of Medicaid, food stamps and housing subsidies to voluntarily sequester income increases in a “stabilization fund.” This fund could be managed by the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services. The money would remain in trust for the beneficiary, to be given to him or her at the point that the protected beneficiary decides they no longer want to divert their excess earnings to the fund and are willing to let the benefit go. At that point the beneficiary would have some cash savings to defray the extra costs of rent or healthcare plans purchased in the federal ACA marketplace. And hopefully they would have proceeded another step or two on the career ladder to earn enough to stand on their own.
Recommendation: Under Jobs Goal 4–Improving and increasing the delivery of supportive services for individuals to access employment, Long-Term Action Steps, add:
Franklin County’s Job and Family Services Department, alone and together with other government partners, will explore with relevant state and federal agencies the possibility of securing a waiver of income eligibility limitations in TANF, Medicaid, SNAP, Section 8 and other benefits. Such waiver would allow the initiation of a beneficiary “stabilization fund” to which excess income from a job promotion or change could be diverted and held in trust for the beneficiary for a flexible time period, designed to reduce the impact of “benefit cliffs” on career advancement.
Justice System Involvement
There are many ways that justice system involvement frustrates a person’s ability to secure and retain gainful employment. These include loss of a job due to incarceration, and inability to secure a job following a criminal conviction due to inability to be licensed in many professions and the question that appears on many employment applications—have you ever been convicted of a crime?
I commend the County for including in the blueprint a commitment to advocating for reforming the cash bail system because it unfairly targets the poor and persons of color and has long lasting effects. There are some other actions I would urge the County to add to its commitments. The County could use its leverage as a contractor to require companies with whom it contracts to “ban the box”—that is, eliminate the question on employment applications that asks whether the applicant has every been convicted of a crime.
Recommendation: Under Jobs Goal 2– Eliminating systemic class, racial, gender, and disability wage gaps in employment, Immediate County Action, add:
Require companies seeking to contract with Franklin County to eliminate from their job applications the question asking whether the applicant has ever been convicted of a crime. This is not intended to prevent contractors from asking about past criminal history in the context of a job interview so that the employer can evaluate the nature and circumstances of a past crime in relationship to the job qualifications.
In addition, as the operator of the Franklin County Jail, the County has a unique role to play in the lives of men and women incarcerated there who are often disproportionately poor. For those who are confined in jail to serve a misdemeanor or class 5 felony sentence, the County can leverage resources to provide education and/or training. Such programming would support Goal #3 in the Jobs Domain– Increasing access to relevant training for credentials that meet local demand with employer commitments to hire and promote.
An employment counselor could interview the confined person to determine what can be done in the jail to prepare them for life outside, such as securing a GED or gaining specific job training. Over 30,000 people pass through the Franklin County jail in a given year, and on any given day about 40 percent of the 2,000+ population are there post-trial. Creative partnerships could be developed with local boards of education, Franklin County Educational Service Center and private non-profits to effectuate such a program.
Recommendation: Under Jobs—Goal 3, Increasing access to relevant training for credentials that meet local demand with employer commitments to hire and promote, Immediate County Action add:
Upon the opening of the new Franklin County Jail, the Sherriff’s Department creates a program to evaluate all inmates sentenced to three months or more in the County Jail to determine their educational barriers to employment and offer them education or training that will reduce those barriers.
The blueprint merges worthy goals on the supply and demand side of housing, seeking to increase the supply of affordable housing through various financial means and building the demand side by seeking greater availability and acceptance by landlords of housing supports. I agree with most of the short- and long-term actions in support of Goals 5, 6 and 7, and look forward to the specificity which will need to be added as the blueprint moves forward in implementation. Some specific additions are stated below under the goal.
However, it is unlikely the County will be able to abate, finance and subsidize its way out of the housing affordability crisis. This crisis threatens job stability (people have to move when the rent is raised, can’t afford a car repair because the rent is too high etc.), family stability (families unable to find housing separate to keep everyone under a roof), and educational attainment (children forced to change schools when families are evicted, homeless, or moving to escape rent increases).
The domain of housing has been dominated for decades by “carrots,” and it is now time to also employ “sticks” in the affordability battle. Landlords have been entirely without restriction in the rents they charge and in their rejection of rent subsidies. The County should be heavily lobbying in favor of HB 229, co-sponsored by Franklin County Representative Adam Miller, which would require landlords to accept what is often referred to as “Section 8” subsidies. County attorney should be collaborating with City of Columbus attorneys and state legislators, as well as tenants and landlords, to draft reasonable legislation to control the out-of-control increase of rents across Franklin County and our state.
Recommendation: Under Housing Goal 5—Increasing the supply of and equitable opportunity to access quality housing, under County Action add two actions:
Franklin County will support HB 229 in the 133rd Ohio General Assembly to require acceptance of Section 8 subsidies.
Franklin County will ask local legislators in the Ohio House and Senate to draft legislation requiring that rents bear a reasonable relationship to the size and quality of the rental housing, and the purchase price paid by the landlord for the house or apartment building, to be enforced by regulations.
Goal Six primarily influences the “demand” side of the housing equation, helping families be in a better position to secure and retain housing. While I agree with almost all the action steps supporting this goal, I would make one recommendation pertaining to the use of TANF funds. The County’s Prevention, Retention and Contingency (PRC) plan sets the income ceiling for benefits at 165% of the federal poverty level. This leaves out too many people who are unable to save for a crisis.
Recommendation: Under Housing Goal 6— Enabling more families at or near poverty to afford quality housing, and reducing the percentage of housing-cost burdened families, change the short-term action step pertaining to use of TANF dollars as follows (proposed addition underlined):
Improve use of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Women Infant and Children (WIC) programs, and other public resources by families eligible to create housing stability, by increasing the Prevention Retention and Contingency Fund (PRC) assistance group income ceiling to one that is more likely to reach all families facing eviction who are without sufficient resources to avert the eviction.
Goal Seven increases the financial resources available to implement housing supports. While I agree with most of the short-term and long-term action steps, I believe the County could be more specific in its statement of what it will do to leverage “funding, tax credits and other resources to increase the supply of affordable housing.” Proposals have been made to increase affordable housing in Franklin County by increasing the fee paid when a house is sold, and the deed recorded. This is an action that is very specific and could work in the short term as well as the long term. I recommend that the County add this specificity to Goal Seven’s action steps.
Recommendation: Under Housing Goal 7, Increasing the financial resources available to implement housing supports, Immediate County Action, state (see underlined portion):
The commissioners’ Department of Economic Development and Planning will complete its new strategic plan this spring. The plan will include comprehensive recommendations in line with the blueprint’s housing goals and action steps and will likely include components such as creating a new community land trust; reviewing zoning codes; considering residential tax incentives; continuing to support for home ownership and financial counseling programs; and leveraging funding, tax credits and other resources to increase the supply of affordable housing, including raising the filing fee when a deed is recorded, and dedicating that increase to increasing the supply of affordable housing.
I am pleased that the blueprint emphasizes the importance of maternal and child health. The emphasis on school health clinics is critical, as is the focus on addressing trauma, and on improving the system of medical transportation. I am also pleased that short term action steps include the improvement of usage rates for SNAP, WIC, Medicaid, and other public programs among eligible families. In Franklin County there were 3,502 fewer people enrolled in Medicaid in April 2019 than a year earlier in April 2018. There were 1,101 fewer children enrolled in that year. The County should leverage its oversight of FCDJS to establish a special task force to contact those losing Medicaid to determine whether they are securing health coverage elsewhere and to either link them to Marketplace health plans or assist with their return to Medicaid if they remain or have again become Medicaid eligible.
Recommendation: Under Health Goal 8—Improving maternal and child health among high disparity groups, struggling financially, Immediate County Action, add:
Establish a task force within FCDJFS to reach out to those who have lost Medicaid in the last year to determine if they have found other health coverage and to link them to available sources of coverage if no longer Medicaid eligible, or re-enroll them in Medicaid if they are Medicaid eligible. Engage in vigorous efforts to contact persons who fail to respond to a notice for redetermination of Medicaid benefits to help them avoid Medicaid termination.
Goal 9 focuses on the need to address the incidence and racial disparities in the occurrences of preventable diseases. This is an important goal and I agree with the short and long-term action steps. I would also add a County action here that would emphasize identifying persons who come into the Franklin County jail who are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol and formulating and executing a treatment plan that can be carried out while they are in the jail.
Recommendation: Under Health Goal 9– Reducing the overall incidence and racial disparities in occurrences of preventable diseases and trauma, and improving the health of those living with chronic, mental, physical, and behavioral health conditions among those struggling financially, Immediate County Action add:
Screen all inmate coming into the Franklin County Jail for drug and/or alcohol addiction and design a plan so that they can safely detox in the jail and be treated for their addiction while in the jail. Link them to follow-up addiction treatment upon their release.
Goal 10 is to improve overall environmental conditions in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty so that they are safe, walkable, and have easy access to basic resources, including access to nutritious food. The emphasis on safe streets and walkable neighborhoods is very important, and I think the County needs to bump it up from being carried out as a part of Goal 10’s long-term action step (Prioritize county and municipal investments for safe streets and walkable neighborhoods in communities of concentrated poverty), to becoming a county action step.
Recommendation: Under Goal 10—Improve overall environmental conditions in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty so that they are safe, walkable, and have easy access to basic resources, including access to nutritious food, Immediate County Action, add:
The County will compile a list of streets and roads without sidewalks that are frequented by pedestrians in areas of poverty and that are located outside municipal boundaries and create a plan for safe walkability.
I support the overall thrust of the section on youth which focuses on protecting children and stimulating them through better opportunities for academic success and employment exposure. It would be good to give a little more recognition to the critical development that happens in the zero to three period of children’s lives. This is done in part by zeroing in on improving quality in childcare centers. However, as noted by the stakeholder voices in Section 4 of the report, it is difficult for parents to find quality childcare that accepts subsidies for second and third shifts.
Goal 11 is to increase the number of students at or near the poverty level experiencing academic success. I strongly support the short-term actions of increasing trauma informed training across the education system. Ohio has one of the higher incidences of children with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Absenteeism is also a big problem across our state, and I support the reinstatement of free COTA bus passes. It is also essential that summer youth employment programs be supported. These can give young people the extra help they need to gain confidence and work skills for post-high school performance. Sustaining the conversation about racial segregation is critical to addressing the legacy of racism that keeps people in poverty. I also strongly support the long-term actions of increasing home visiting and expanding the use of schools as neighborhood resource centers.
The one additional action step I would add is to improve the availability of health education in the schools that includes reproductive health. Parenthood before one is academically, emotionally and financially prepared is one of the biggest drivers of long-term poverty. Our state legislature has dropped the ball on this for years; local government units must pick it up and make sure that youth are aware of how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.
Recommendation: In Goal 11 – Increasing the number of students at or near the poverty level experiencing academic success, under short-term actions add:
Support school district policies that support health education in schools, particularly with a focus on reproductive health that will help prevent early pregnancy.
Goal 12 focuses on building safe homes and neighborhoods. I agree with the short and long-term action steps supporting this goal. However, there seems to be missing the concept of partnering with local municipal governments to build respect for neighborhoods where there is concentrated poverty. While the blueprint focuses a lot on bringing people to jobs and jobs to neighborhoods, there is also a need to focus on creating respect among government personnel, particularly police, for the neighborhood itself. I would recommend an additional short-term action step to support this concept.
Recommendation: In Goal 12 – Increasing the number of children in safe and stable homes and environments, under short-term actions add:
Partner with municipal police forces to identify neighborhood assets and to recognize the value of the neighborhood to the people who live there.
I agree with Goal 13 and its short and long-term action steps emphasizing partnerships with parents, beginning at the birthing hospital. I particularly agree with determining whether work requirements for benefit programs can be satisfied by volunteering at their child’s school. In addition, the emphasis on home visiting is welcome.
Thank you for this opportunity to comment.
 For many inmates, behavioral health issues, including drug or alcohol addiction, may be their most significant barrier to work, and this is included under the discussion of health goals.
 I am uncertain of the impact of easing restriction on accessory dwelling units, and therefore express no comment on that item.
 This needs to be part of a longer discussion. Where the county identifies streets without sidewalks that border municipal boundaries or traverse various governmental boundaries, the county should use its role as convener to bring together all relevant parties and seek solutions.