(December 2004) A new study of low-income Appalachian Ohio families finds that time limits on cash welfare benefits have coincided with gains in employment and health insurance for these families as well as a distressing rise in their levels of hunger and homelessness.

The study also reports that low-income parents in the poorest and most remote Appalachian Ohio counties are less likely to be working for pay than similar parents in Appalachian counties with larger populations and more economic activity.

“Public policy is formulated and debated with a strong urban bias, and welfare reform is no different,” says Ann Tickamyer, an Ohio University sociologist and a co-author of the study.

Tickamyer adds that rural Ohio residents are much more likely than the state’s city dwellers or suburbanites to face an absolute lack of public transportation, child-care facilities, and jobs—all elements that would directly help these residents’ chances for economic success.

Ohio Provides a Good Case Study of Welfare Reform’s Effects

The study came out of the Rural Welfare Reform Project at Ohio University’s Voinovich Center for Leadership and Public Affairs. The project has regularly collected data and interviewed welfare recipients, employers, human-service agency staff members, and community leaders since the late 1990s, when Congress enacted reforms designed to limit cash welfare benefits and promote paid employment.

Tickamyer says that Ohio’s extreme regional diversity makes it a good national case study for the effects of time limits on welfare. According to the study, the state’s 88 counties include urban rustbelt cities in the north, Midwest agrarian areas in the central part of the state, and Appalachian poverty and economic distress in southeast.

For the study, Tickamyer and coauthors Debra Henderson, Julie White, and Barry Tadlock conducted a survey of 800 low-income residents—the vast majority white mothers in their mid-30s—who visited county social services offices in four rural Appalachian Ohio counties. The researchers surveyed one-half of the group in 1999, after welfare reform was well underway, and the other one-half in 2001, after time limits for welfare cash benefits took effect.

More Are Working, but Most Are Still Poor

The share of survey respondents who reported working for pay increased by 30 percent between 1999 and 2001, while the share who received cash welfare benefits dropped 42 percent.

But despite these increases in paid employment, reported household income from all sources1 for these families remained dramatically below the poverty line. By 2001, working households had incomes that averaged roughly $11,300, while nonworking households had incomes of about $8,800. (The poverty threshold for a four-person household in 2001—the average size of households surveyed for the study—was $18,104.)

“Paid workers had higher household incomes, but the amount they were able to earn and piece together still made them among the poorest members of society,” says Tickamyer. “The types of work at the hourly wages they found are unlikely to lift their families out of poverty.”

The researchers also saw marked differences among Ohio’s rural counties in how many welfare recipients were working. About 43 percent of the respondents in the more populous counties were working, compared with only 29 percent in the more remote counties (see Table 1).

Table 1
Percent Rural Ohio Welfare Recipients Surveyed Currently Working for Pay, by County Characteristics

More Populous Rural County
1999 34.5%
2001 43.0%
Remote Rural County
1999 21.1%
2000 29.7%

Source: Ann Tickamyer et al., “The Impact of Welfare Reform on Livelihood Practices of Rural Welfare Recipients,” Rural Welfare Reform Project, Ohio University, paper presented at the Rural Sociological Society, Sacramento (Aug. 2004).

In addition, declines in welfare receipt between 1999 and 2001 were smaller in the two most remote Appalachian counties. Overall income for welfare recipients in these areas was also about 10 percent lower than the two more populous Appalachian counties, with fewer respondents able to earn income through odd jobs.

Tickamyer attributes this disparity to the severe impacts remoteness and isolation have on income-earning potential. “It is clear that more remote counties had fewer employment opportunities and that [their] residents face many barriers to finding jobs that pay a living wage,” she says. “And the poorest counties lack the economic resources and development initiatives underway in other areas.”

Hunger and Homelessness Rise Sharply, but Health Insurance Coverage Also Up

Markers of extreme poverty also rose for the study’s subjects between 1999 and 2001. Tickamyer and her coauthors found a 30 percent increase in the percentage of respondents who reported lacking food for either themselves or their children; experiencing homelessness; or “doubling up” (moving in) with another household during the previous year (see Table 2).

Table 2
Hardship Experienced by Rural Ohio Welfare Recipients Surveyed at Least Once During Previous Year, by Hardship, 1999 and 2001

Percent % change
1999 2001
Ran out of money or food stamps for food 78.4 79.9 1.9
Lacked food for children 26.8 35.2 31.3
Lacked food for self 51.8 57.8 11.6
Were homeless 25.4 34.4 35.4
Doubled up with another household 11.5 15.4 33.9
Lacked medical insurance for self 30.8 20.2 -34.4
Children lacked medical insurance 15.6 7.5 -51.9

Source: Ann Tickamyer et al., “The Impact of Welfare Reform on Livelihood Practices of Rural Welfare Recipients,” Rural Welfare Reform Project, Ohio University, paper presented at the Rural Sociological Society, Sacramento (Aug. 2004).

And the share of respondents who reported lacking food for their children and being homeless at some point in the previous year increased from about one-quarter in 1999 to more than one-third in 2001.

“These levels reflect severe difficulties making ends meet,” says Tickamyer.

Similar levels of hardship were reported in both remote and more populous rural counties. Nonworking respondents reported somewhat fewer hardships than working counterparts in both years—perhaps because more nonworking respondents are on disability and have access to more social services, suggests Tickamyer.

One bright spot in the study was the share of respondents with health insurance coverage: It increased by one-third between 1999 and 2001, to about 80 percent of the adults and 93 percent of children. “The increased health insurance coverage reflects aggressive efforts by social service agencies to enroll low-income children in state-based medical programs as well as federal and state efforts to provide health insurance for the working poor,” notes Tickamyer.

Moving to Urban Areas not a Preferred Solution

As part of the larger Rural Welfare Reform Project, Tickamyer and her colleagues also conducted in-depth interviews from 1999 to 2001 with a small focus group of rural Ohio welfare recipients .

Among these recipients, the researchers found strong support for the goals of welfare reform—particularly for moving people from welfare to work. But the recipients also reported they had had enormous adjustments and financial problems while making that transition. The focus group participants also made clear that moving to urban areas would not help their difficulties, an analysis Tickamyer agrees with. “It would be moving the problem, not finding a solution,” she says.

Instead, the recipients unanimously said they would choose a safe rural environment over an urban one. As one mother told researchers: “If I had a choice between living in Columbus and working making twenty bucks an hour and I had a choice to raise my kids in a small town where I felt better about it and wasn’t as scared, I’d choose that small town in a heartbeat.”

Rural Residents Need More From Welfare Reform

Tickamyer says rural areas need welfare reform laws that put more emphasis on these areas’ special problems—including lack of access to education and training, transportation, child care, and job creation.

“Fundamental aspects of welfare reform need to be reconsidered, including stringent lifetime time limits and benefits available to the working poor,” she argues. Tickamyer and her coauthors are making plans to conduct the Ohio survey again. She notes that the data for the current study were gathered during a period of economic expansion.

“Rising unemployment rates in Ohio and elsewhere have threatened the fragile accommodations many families have made,” she says.

Paola Scommegna is a freelance writer.


  1. The researchers found that respondents gained income from a variety of sources—including disability, child support, the Earned Income Tax Credit, informal jobs, bartering, selling at flea markets, as well as selling homemade or homegrown products, firewood, and wild mushrooms.