A battle-hardened veteran of the anti-poverty effort in Ohio, Jack Frech maintains a genial disposition. He speaks with the soft, compassionate tones of a person used to helping people who may feel embarrassed to find themselves in desperate need.
In the 1980s, Frech transformed the concept of the local county welfare department in Ohio, turning the agency he was hired to oversee in Athens County into one that actively sought to help poor people, and to advocate on their behalf. No longer would the agency stigmatize poverty or begrudgingly hand out benefits. Under Frech’s stewardship, it would take the poverty problem head on. He embraced unionization, and he fought in state budget after budget for more resources to help poor people.
Often, Jack Frech has fought in vain, ignored by politicians uninterested in helping a population that doesn’t show up in large numbers at the polls, and barely has the resources to stay fed, let alone to pay million dollar lawyers to lobby on their behalf in Columbus, Washington, or anywhere else. Nevertheless, every budget cycle, Frech showed up to testify to the General Assembly, and to advocate, not simply for resources for his own agency, but for resources for every agency fighting against poverty, for a united effort to provide true opportunity and dignity to all Ohioans.
Now, after 33 years at the helm of Athens County Job & Family Services, Jack Frech is retiring. “It takes its toll on you,” Frech said in an interview last week. Throughout his time, Frech has watched state aid for workers toiling in poverty subtracted in one state budget after another. He has seen their already-low benefits reduced. He has seen their plight dismissed by political leaders.
Frech has seen those struggling to make ends meet demonized as lazy moochers. He’s seen life’s little hiccups—a broken arm or a broken car—hurl families into bankruptcy. He’s seen systemic issues that perpetuate generational poverty continue unabated, the American dream unavailable to vast numbers of this country’s citizens.
These are people working multiple jobs just to have money to put food on the table, purchase school supplies for their children, and buy toiletries. They have neither the time nor the resources for political advocacy. And without political advocacy they are without a voice.
Frech and others have attempted to be that voice, but now as much as ever it goes unheard, largely because many just don’t care to listen.
Frech grew up in Niles in northeast Ohio working at his grandparents’ grocery store, which was attached to his house. He recalls the store offering credit to help people in need before the age of food stamps.
“I learned at a very young age about taking care of the people standing in front of you,” he said.
After earning a degree in secondary education at Ohio University, Frech started out as a schoolteacher on the east side of Cleveland. But with a flood of people entering the education field, Frech decided to take Ohio’s civil service test, and ended up as a social-services caseworker in Trumbull County.
Around 1973, Frech decided to return to Athens County, and got a job as a caseworker at what was then called the welfare department. Frech said that when he was a caseworker the treatment of those in poverty was much better. “The help they got was much more significant than it is now, and we’re much more wealthy as a nation than we were in 1973,” he said.
At the age of 25, Frech was hired as deputy director for Hocking Athens Perry Community Action.
At this time, around 1978, Frech began his long career in advocacy at the state level trying to pry away more resources for those struggling with poverty. For the next three decades, Frech would doggedly pursue this anti-poverty advocacy, and though he saw diminishing returns, Frech was determined to continue pushing.
“That’s the longest, most ineffective lobbying history ever. I know that it will be recorded somewhere in history as, ‘This guy could’ve done this for 50 years and wouldn’t have gotten anywhere,'” he said. “But we haven’t given up yet.”
He helped organize rallies. He contacted state legislators, and he’s testified during every state budget cycle since 1978.
In 1981, the opportunity came for Frech to apply to be director of Job & Family Services. The Athens County Commissioners hired him in a split vote of 2-1.
He brought with him an entirely new attitude for the agency.
“The previous administration was not really gung ho about getting people on assistance,” he said. “They just didn’t believe in putting people on. I think when I got here they had 150 people on the general assistance program. Within 18 months we had 1,500.”
The rules were the same. Everybody who received assistance was eligible, but Frech brought a new approach: The goal would be to help people who were eligible, and under Frech, Athens County J&FS did exactly that.
“It brought in millions of dollars,” he said. “I think that was the first time the county realized the economic benefit of public-assistance programs.”
When Frech was hired, the agency faced a $200,000 deficit. Within two years, he said, he had turned that into a surplus of over $1 million.
“We started expanding. We went from 30 people working at the department to 75 by the end of the next year,” he said. “A lot of things started happening at once when we came in with the attitude that these resources were here to take care of people.”
Frech wrote personnel policies for the first time, and introduced training and review processes. ACJ&FS was one of the first agencies to get a contract under the then-new collective bargaining laws.
“I invited the unions in. Most of the other counties were hiring hired guns to keep them out,” he recalled. Frech banged out a contract with the Communication Workers of America (CWA), which continues to represent ACJ&FS employees to this day.
In 1984, as then-Ohio Gov. Dick Celeste was branding Ohio the “heart of it all,” Frech and others started a new coalition called “Have a Heart Ohio.”
The idea behind the coalition was to advocate for more resources for those in poverty in general, instead of individual agencies competing for resources. Frech penned guest editorials for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Columbus Dispatch.
At the state level, though, Frech became familiar with the unfortunate truth of anti-poverty politics.
“What I ran into then is the same thing I run into today. It’s legislators who don’t have any contact with poor people,” he said. “They don’t know anything about poor people other than the myths.”
And the myths have been persistent. In the 1980s, one of the myths of poverty was couched in overt racism: Some legislators believed that poverty was solely the problem of African-American or Hispanic people, Frech said, and they would come out and tell him explicitly that’s why they didn’t support welfare programs.
“A lot of other people just didn’t like the idea of welfare, period, including a lot of Democrats,” he said.
Much of politics is motivated by self-interest, and despite the valiant intentions of Have a Heart Ohio, Frech has seen a reversion over the years back to agencies advocating for more resources for themselves as opposed to more resources for the anti-poverty fight in general.
“As time went on, I found myself more and more isolated in being willing to speak out about these issues, and there were a number of years where I was the only one speaking out to the legislature about this,” he said.
In the 1980s, those in poverty were being used as scapegoats for all sorts of problems, he said, recalling Ronald Reagan’s attacks on “Cadillac welfare queens.” Over the past 30 years, that mentality has become engrained.
“It’s amazing to me what people are willing to accept now,” he said. “We have more kids living in Ohio now who have no cash coming into their households at all than we have kids on welfare. Their health is going down the drain. The education system can’t deal with people moving every two weeks with no decent home or a bed to sleep in.”
Frech said that at ACJ&FS he has emphasized training, putting people into school, and placing a priority on getting job skills. But almost every educational program they have started or participated in has seen funding slashed.
And while Gov. John Kasich, for instance, has expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, Frech noted, public assistance has been cut.
“So they can go to the doctor but they can’t buy groceries,” he said. “They can go to the emergency room but they can’t buy band-aids. It’s not being realistic about whole people, real people, and their lives.”
As far back as Frech can remember he has had nightmares.
“A lot of them have to do with the things I know and the things I’ve heard,” he said. “I’ve heard and seen things people shouldn’t see and hear. And I have nightmares every night. For me, the relief is coming to work and doing something about it. Because you know that while you’re having the nightmare, other people out there are living it.”
Coming to work became therapeutic, he said.
And though he’s retiring from ACJ&FS, Frech said he intends to continue his fight against poverty, and for working people who deserve a break. Because despite the roadblocks, despite the deep frustrations of apathy and antipathy toward those in poverty, Frech said he never considered giving up the fight.
“It’s still the right thing to do. That doesn’t change. That never changes.”
David DeWitt is a journalist and universal minister based out of Athens, Ohio. He has also written for Government Executive online, the National Journal’s Hotline, and The New York Observer’s Politicker.com. He can be found on Twitter @TheRevDeWitt.