John Kasich has argued forcefully that politicians have a duty to help the poor. He's even been praised by some on the left who see him as a more compassionate voice of his party, largely because of his cooperation with the Obama administration in expanding Medicaid in his state.
Kasich's compassion, though, has always been tempered with a kind of discipline. First as Ohio's congressman and now as its governor, he advocated requiring the poor to work or take classes in order to get help from the government. Far fewer American families are on the rolls because of Kasich. From the conservative point of view, his policies encouraged more people to support themselves. Liberal opponents of his approach worry that some families simply have nothing as a result of the reforms.
Kasich, now a Republican candidate for president, was one of the sponsors of the legislation that reformed federal welfare policy in 1996. The law combined with a healthy economy to decrease the national cash-assistance caseload by about 20 percent, an unprecedented change.
"If you are down and out, if you are down on your luck, if you need some help, If your kids are sick, if you are sick, we are going to help you," Kasich said on the floor of the House of Representatives at the time.
"What does this bill do?" he asked. "It says, 'Look, you have got to go to work. ... You cannot be on welfare forever.' "
Since the law's passage, Americans have only been allowed to draw certain benefits of a limited time. To qualify, many had to show that they had a job or were working at getting one. For example, food stamps are limited to three months every three years for able-bodied adults without children, unless they're working, volunteering or in training of some kind.
Economists continue to debate the consequences of the law for the poor. Poverty levels declined and family incomes increased in the years following, and some argue those trends reflect larger numbers of poor Americans finding work. Yet there is also evidence that the very poorest families -- the parents who never managed to find a job -- were even worse off, and that if the poor were working more, they were also less likely to be in school.
Under the law, the federal government could waive those restrictions for food stamps in a weak economy. Kasich became governor of Ohio in 2011, when its economy was the weakest it had been in three generations. The Obama administration waived a three-month restriction on food stamps for Ohio on Kasich's request, as it did in many other states.
Kasich did not renew his request in 2013, even though Ohio could have received another waiver. The limits went back into effect, as Mark Curnutte reported at the time in The Cincinnati Enquirer and as Hannah Levintova recounts this week in Mother Jones.
Kasich's decision was controversial, especially because there were exceptions for a handful of counties with especially high unemployment. Benjamin Johnson, a spokesman for the state Department of Job and Family Services, argued that the exceptions were in keeping with the conservative principles laid out in the reform of 1996.
"In parts of the state where the unemployment rate remains higher, it may be more difficult for adults to find qualified education or employment," Johnson said. "It is important that we provide both the food assistance and the job training assistance."
That argument hasn't mollified many advocates for Ohio's poor. They note that the counties selected for the extension are largely in the less densely populated, Appalachian region of the state, where there are very few black residents. Yet in several of Ohio's big cities with large minority populations, the unemployment rate was also very high.
The state didn't consider including individual cities in its application for a waiver, and the consequence was that few black recipients caught a break. A civil-rights complaint that several advocacy organizations filed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture noted that 94 percent of food-stamp beneficiaries in the selected 16 counties were white, much more than the statewide average of 62 percent. In six months, according to the complaint, almost 20,000 people in Ohio had stopped receiving food stamps.
That shift in food stamps was minor, though, compared to the much larger reduction in the rolls for cash assistance in the state. Observers say the Kasich administration has made a concerted and sustained effort to require more public beneficiaries to work.
"This is part of an ongoing strategy," said Wendy Patton, an analyst at the left-leaning think tank Policy Matters Ohio.
In 2010, 292,000 people were enrolled in Ohio's version of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal program Kasich sponsored in 1996 to replace old-fashioned welfare. That figure has declined to 131,000 since he became governor, according to the state -- a decrease of 55.1 percent. About 94,000 fewer children are receiving cash assistance now.
A report produced by Public Consulting Group, a research firm in Boston, found that administrators across Ohio were dissuading applicants from signing up for the program. They were turning away those who they felt wouldn't be able to find work, in order to comply with new state directives and federal requirements imposed in 1996.
Meanwhile, enrollment in Medicaid and the federal Children's Health Insurance Program has increased 28 percent since before the passage of Obama's health-care reform to nearly 3 million.
Conservative commentators have excoriated Kasich's decision to expand Medicaid as a betrayal of his ideals. It is a public benefit, and some worry that beneficiaries who would otherwise have had to find a job to secure health insurance will be less likely to work.
Kasich, though, has contended that expanding Medicaid would bring more people into the labor force. The program will ensure that Ohio's poor were healthy enough to work, Kasich argues.
"This is not a program designed to encourage dependency," he said in 2013. "It is a program designed to construct a bridge so that people can be functioning in a way where they can contribute."
All the same, the governor has been forced to defend himself.
"When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small," the Republican presidential candidate said once in response to a question about Medicaid. "But he is going to ask you what you did for the poor. You better have a good answer."