Allen County's model to end the benefit cliff is expanding in Ohio

Jul. 31—LIMA — An initiative to make the transition from public assistance easier for low-income households is expanding from Allen County into other parts of Ohio, providing savings accounts, emergency assistance and jobs training so those who qualify for public assistance can afford to take higher-paying jobs.

The Benefit Bridge was designed to end the so-called benefits cliff, or the point at which a person's earnings are too high to qualify for income-based government programs but too low to cover the loss of food stamps, child-care vouchers and other assistance that phases out as earnings rise.

Allen County piloted the incentive program in 2018 in response to complaints from business owners who said employees were turning down additional hours to avoid losing their benefits.

"They're making the financial decisions that anybody would make," said Joe Patton, director of the Allen County Ohio Means Jobs and Department of Job and Family Services divisions.

Ohio has since earmarked $5 million over the next two years to fund similar pilot programs in other counties before potentially taking the Benefit Bridge statewide in 2022.

The 18-month incentive program takes a two-tiered approach to alleviating the financial burden families face as their benefits phase out, offering up to $3,000 in cash paid out at the completion of the program so long as participants maintain employment.

The cash incentive acts as a savings account, designed not only to encourage people to stay in the program but to give them a safety net once their benefits are gone.

Then there's the emergency aid: down payment assistance to build credit and make reliable transportation affordable; financial aid for rent, utility bills, car insurance and emergency repairs that would otherwise cause a person to become homeless or lose their job, common barriers to employment that force people back on public assistance; made available throughout the course of the program before the savings are paid out.

The pilot program also offers ancillary services like short-term vocational training for in-demand jobs, financial aid to cover the cost of testing or certification fees and help buying uniforms or tools needed to keep a job.

The program has registered 127 adults since its founding, according to OMJ-Allen County.

Of those, 41 have successfully completed the 18-month program or graduated early. Another 60 adults are currently enrolled, while 26 exited the program because they did not maintain employment.

The $2 to $3-an-hour stretch when benefits start to phase out is often the hardest period because earnings aren't quite high enough yet, Patton said. The idea is to "make work pay," he said, by helping people through that transition so they continue moving up the pay scale, potentially earning upward of $17 an hour, rather than fall back to qualify for benefits.

The support "gives you a little bit of time where you can put a little bit on the side to help you progress," Tracy Thomas, a mother who participated in the program in 2019, told The Lima News at the time.

An Ohio Means Jobs-Allen County survey of program participants found that many who sign up for the incentive program are seeking stability in housing, employment and transportation. Others said they wanted to pay off past debts, learn how to manage their finances or understand the applications process.