Archive for April, 2012

Commentary: Combating Negative Portrayals of “Welfare” Recipients in the Media

By: Sarah Biehl, Staff Attorney, Ohio Poverty Law Center

“Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”

                        – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd President of the United States

Most of us here at OPLC have been frustrated at many points over the past few years by the renewal of what I call “the war on poor people.”  As poverty law advocates, this is something we fight against constantly – from opposing counsel who view our clients as insignificant, scummy, or otherwise useless human beings they can simply stomp all over, to policymakers and ideologues in the media who seek to demonize people simply because they happen to be poor.  But it seems like it has gotten worse over the past few years, since the start of the economic recession and its aftermath.

Examples of the demonization of the poor, and the programs that help Americans make ends meet, are herehere,  and here.  Sigh.

There are probably lots of reasons that Americans are attracted to the idea that poor people have made bad choices, or done something wrong or evil.  We need to believe that people in bad situations did something bad to put themselves there; otherwise, it could happen to any one of us, right?  And our collective focus on and respect for hard work, individual responsibility, and family autonomy is strong.  What seems to have been lost, however, is an acknowledgment of our collective vulnerability to bad luck, a struggling economy, and/or the inequity of access to education, resources, and jobs.  We’re all really only one medical emergency away from bankruptcy.  Poverty.  Economic hardship.  It really doesn’t matter what you call it.

This is why OPLC has been working to help found, design, and promote OhioSPEAKS, a project of Advocates for Ohio’s Future.  Advocates for Ohio’s Future is a statewide coalition of poverty groups and advocates who work together to advance the causes of Ohio’s marginalized, poor, and struggling families.  OPLC is a member of Advocates for Ohio’s Future, of course.  The idea behind OhioSPEAKS is that we need a place to collect stories that tell the REAL story of what’s happening in Ohio – of how Ohio families are using public benefits like food stamps to stabilize their families, provide nutrition and resources to help their children grow up healthy, and create the best possible future for themselves.  It sounds idealistic, and it is:  we are actively trying to combat negative commentary about poor people with real stories, told by real people, not pundits, of what “welfare” actually does.

Fight negative perceptions, myths, falsities, and opinions with truth.  Don’t just advocate for and speak out on behalf of people in poverty in Ohio – provide a platform so that they can speak for themselves.  Share their stories and promote the good deeds that our “welfare” programs do every day.  This is the power of OhioSPEAKS and of the people who live, work, and struggle every day in Ohio.

I hope you’ll join our fight against the war on poor people and check out OhioSPEAKS today.



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Ohio Legal Aid Attorneys Submit Comments on Payday Lending to Federal Agency

In response to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau‘s recent request for comments on payday lending, Ohio legal aid advocates, led by OPLC attorney Linda Cook, recently teamed up to write and submit comments on the state of payday lending in Ohio.

Ohio advocates’ comments focused on Ohio’s failure to prevent payday lending, despite bipartisan legislation and a successful ballot initiative that were designed to prevent the practices in Ohio.

According to the legal aid group:

“Despite legislation and ratification by Ohio citizens, payday lending remains alive and well in Ohio.  No lender holds a license under the Short Term Loan Act.  Lenders engaging in the business of short term, small dollar loans have instead sought licensing under other provisions of the Ohio Revised Code that were on the books prior to the now-repealed 1995 legislation that opened the door to payday lending in Ohio.”

The group’s comments cite a recent report by Policy Matters Ohio, which found that “payday loans are similar to, if not worse than, before the legislative changes from 2008, because lenders are not operating under the new law. Stores are still selling high-cost, short-term, two-week loans.”

The legal aid advocates explain in their comments that Ohio’s experience with trying, and failing, to eliminate payday lending illustrates “the pervasiveness of both storefront and internet payday lending, and the entry of conventional banking into the short term, small dollar loan market….”

Click here to read a PDF copy of the legal aid advocates’ comments on payday lending.

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Testimony on HB 462 – Educational Stability of Foster Kids in Ohio

OPLC attorney Sarah Biehl presented the below testimony in support of HB 462 to the Ohio House Education Committee on April 18, 2012.  To find out more about HB 462, including text of the bill, amendments, and Legislative Services Commission analysis, click here.

House Bill 462 is an Important First Step Toward Preserving Educational Stability for Children Involved in the Child Welfare System

Sarah Biehl

Staff Attorney

Ohio Poverty Law Center

Chairman Stebelton, Vice Chair Newbold, Ranking Member Luckie, and members of the House Education Committee, thank you for providing me the opportunity to speak to you today in support of House Bill 462.  I am an attorney with the Ohio Poverty Law Center, a statewide poverty law organization that works to expand, protect, and enforce the legal rights of low-income Ohioans.  I focus on education law and children’s rights, and have a particular interest in this legislation because I have been concerned for some time about the lack of educational stability children in Ohio’s child welfare system experience.

House Bill 462 is an important first step toward helping to preserve educational stability for kids who are subject of abuse, neglect, or dependency complaints in juvenile courts.  These are children who, through no fault of their own, are pulled out of school and often NOT placed in a new school – often for very long periods of time.  I work directly with legal aid attorneys across the state who represent children who are involved in the child welfare system, and they have told me stories of clients who sit out of school, doing nothing, often for weeks, while they wait for Children’s Services, school districts, and other stakeholders to fight out who is responsible for educating the child and to take care of enrolling the child in school.  One attorney in Cincinnati told me that one of the school districts in her region had refused to enroll her client, a foster child in high school, because he had failed to return two textbooks at his previous school.  He was removed from his home under emergency circumstances, and of course no longer had access to the books.  An attorney in Columbus recently told me that one of her clients, a foster child, had been sitting at his foster home, doing nothing, for six weeks because of confusion regarding his special education records and failure to resolve unpaid fees.

Children who are subject to abuse, neglect, or dependency complaints usually come from less-than-ideal home situations.  Many are dealing with abuse, violence, and poverty.  Many have disabilities and special education needs.  Many have already been having trouble in school due to these problems, which makes sense given the enormity of what these kids face on a daily basis.  Changing schools and missing a large amount of school only exacerbates everything else:  research shows that each change in school placement for a child results in a loss of up to six months of academic progress.[1]  Excessive school absences harm children’s academic progress.[2]  Foster children are particularly at risk.  A recent study showed that more than one third of foster kids in the Midwest have repeated a grade.[3]  Nearly half do not complete high school.[4]  These are not, for the most part, kids who can sit out of school for a few weeks and catch up quickly and easily when they return.

The first choice should be to keep foster children in their home schools, with no or very minimal interruption to their school attendance and support to help them maintain academic progress.  In some situations, however, school placement changes are necessary.  When they are, the Ohio Poverty Law Center believes that kids should be enrolled in their new schools as quickly as possible.  This is where House Bill 462 will help.  House Bill 462 will prevent schools from withholding a child’s education records regardless of whether that child’s parents owe fees to the school.  House Bill 462 would directly address both of the examples I mentioned, where children were denied enrollment in school because of lost textbooks or confusion about whether records should be transferred.  This would be a huge step forward for foster kids, and would put Ohio on the path toward ensuring educational stability for children in the child welfare system.

Of course, the Ohio Poverty Law Center supports provisions already existing in the Ohio Revised Code that prevent schools from charging fees to low-income children who qualify for free school lunches.  In the case of children in abuse, neglect, or dependency situations, however, it is not always feasible to check their eligibility for a fee waiver.  House Bill 462 helps ensure that children who are involved in the child welfare system will be able to transfer school records without delay.

In the future, it would be wonderful to see the legislature take the next steps toward educational stability for children in the child welfare system and guarantee all foster children the right to immediate enrollment in school, akin to the rights guaranteed to homeless children under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.  But, in the meantime, House Bill 462 takes an important first step toward addressing an issue crucial to the educational success of Ohio’s most vulnerable children.

Thus, the Ohio Poverty Law Center urges you to vote in favor of House Bill 462.

[1] Temple, J. A., and Reynolds, A. J.  “School mobility and achievement: Longitudinal results from an urban cohort.” Journal of School Psychology 37.4 (1999): 355-377.

[2] Chang, Hedy; Romero, Mariajose, Present, Engaged and Accounted For: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in the Early Grades, National Center for Children in Poverty (September 2008).

[3] Mark E. Courtney et al., Chapin Hall Center for Child, University of Chicago, Midwest Evaluation of the Adult Functioning of Former Foster Youth: Conditions of Youth Preparing to Leave State Care, at (last visited 4/17/2012).

[4] Ronna Cook et al., Westat Inc., A National Evaluation of the Title IV-E Foster Care Independent Living Programs for Youth: Phase 2 Final Report, at (last visited 4/17/2012).

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OPLC Urges Ohioans to Speak Out Against SB 271, Telephone Deregulation

OPLC sent a letter to several Ohio newspapers last week urging them to speak out against SB 271, a bill that would deregulate telephone providers, releasing them from any obligation to provide landline phone service to all Ohioans.  This move could leave many Ohioans, especially in rural and impoverished areas, with NO reliable telephone service.

Dear Editor:

As representatives of rural, lower-income, and elderly Ohioans, we would like to encourage you to editorialize against Senate Bill 271 (SB 271).

This bill would allow some of Ohio’s landline telephone companies to withdraw their basic telephone services from customers. Basic Telephone Service is what consumers know as “plain old telephone service”, with no frills and unlimited local calling for one flat charge.

The guarantee of landline telephone service to every Ohio home is a legal right many of us never even thought to question. But AT&T and Ohio’s landline telephone association are lobbying to get rid of the age-old consumer protection known as the “carrier of last resort.”

Telephone communication is a basic necessity, allowing Ohioans to maintain social contact, preserve health and safety, and gain assistance in an emergency. And while some Ohioans have a preference for landlines, many still have no other realistic choices.

Landlines from the traditional phone company are still the only option for affordable and reliable telephone service for many Ohioans. In fact, three-quarters of all Ohioans still have a landline telephone.

SB 271 would allow some telephone companies to start withdrawing their basic landline telephone service, or charge any price for their services, with very little notice to the consumers so long as they have met a showing of limited telecommunications competition.

The deeply flawed “competitive test” only requires a utility to show that there are two other companies offering some telecommunications service at a single point within each of their exchanges.

The test does not require these alternatives to be available to all customers, nor does it require the alternatives to be cost-competitive or reliable. So essentially, if AT&T and Verizon Wireless claim there is cellular service in your area, your area likely would meet the state’s competitive test.

AT&T, Cincinnati Bell, and two other smaller companies have already met this test in their entire Ohio Service Territory (highlighted in the pink map in the fact sheet from the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel).

If SB 271 passes, the landline telephone customers in those areas will be in danger of losing their basic landline service.

The telephone utilities in the other areas of Ohio would be able to start withdrawing telephone services after having met this weak “competitive” test in their exchanges, too. Many of Ohio’s urban areas may have good cell phone service and this may be an acceptable, although more expensive and less reliable, alternative for some customers. However, other areas like rural Appalachia have spotty cell coverage at best—and AT&T would be allowed to hang up on those customers, too.

There is also an affordability concern with the proposed bill. SB 271 is essentially a back-door rate increase for telephone companies allowing them to no longer offer the most affordable telephone service option.

SB 271 would enable the phone companies to force Ohioans who rely on basic local telephone service (which is the cheapest landline option) to purchase more expensive bundles or packages of services. And these more expensive services are not subject to any of the consumer protections that Ohio law now provides to assure reliable and quality service.

In addition, Ohio’s telephone laws were just updated last year. The 2010 overhaul of Ohio’s telephone regulations went into full effect in 2011 through a 100+-page bill that deregulated major aspects of the telephone industry and allowed some of Ohio’s telephone companies to increase basic telephone rates by $1.25 per month each year—in perpetuity. Throughout the debate on that bill, the telephone industry claimed that they were leaving some important consumer protections in place—and those are the very consumer protections that SB 271 would eliminate.

The ink has barely dried on their last bill, and they are back asking for more. SB 271 bill scraps the $1.25 rate increase and replaces it with unlimited rate increases with fully deregulated telephone services.

The 2010 telephone law also required a Select Committee to form to review the impact of that Bill on consumers.

This review would theoretically hold the utilities accountable for the promises of new jobs and new investments they would make in return for further deregulation. This committee has not even formed yet, let alone issued a report.

Even worse, AT&T’s own testimony to the legislature on the respective telephone bills shows that they have reduced their Ohio workforce by about 3,000 people since the General Assembly was debating the 2010 law.

However, AT&T has still found the funds to hire 21 lobbyists to fight for this bill. Including AT&T, telephone utilities, and their associations, there are a total of at least 34 lobbyists pushing Ohio legislators to cut the cord on their constituents.

Lawmakers in other states—Kentucky, Colorado, and New Jersey—recognized the burden that higher, unaffordable rates posed for vulnerable segments of their constituents, and they soundly rejected this pro-utility legislation.

We encourage you to advocate that the General Assembly cut the cord on SB 271—not allow the phone companies to cut the cord to Ohio’s landline telephone customers.

Contributing and supporting authors:

Michael Smalz and Joseph V. Maskovyak, Appalachian Peace and Justice Network;
Ellis Jacobs, Edgemont Neighborhood Coalition (Dayton);
Michael A. Walters, Pro Seniors, Inc.;
Edyael Casaperalta, Center for Rural Strategies;
Noel Morgan, Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio,
Representing Communities United for Action.

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Legal Aid Community Files Amicus Brief in Cashland Payday Lending Case

On April 2, 2012, the statewide legal aid payday litigation working group filed an amicus brief in the 9th District Court of Appeals challenging Cashland‘s blatant disregard of Ohio’s payday lending reform efforts.  The legal aid community was joined on the brief by the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio, the Center for Responsible Lending, and the National Consumer Law Center.

Click here to see a PDF of the Cashland amicus brief filed by OPLC and the Ohio legal aid community.

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