Welfare caseloads begin to rise in some states

Wednesday, April 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The number of Americans on welfare has begun to rise in about a dozen states and has stopped falling in most others, forcing policy-makers and politicians alike to rethink their approach to aiding the poor.

Caseloads are still dropping in nearly a dozen states, and the national total is still creeping down, but for most of the country, it appears that the days of ever-shrinking welfare rolls have come to an end.

State officials, already anxious about the weakening economy and about time limits that will soon expire, are re-examining their programs to see what changes are needed to serve a more disadvantaged population.

In Tennessee, for instance, the state is offering education and training for those who still have not found jobs; counseling for those with severe problems; and interest-free loans to help those in rural areas buy cars.

``We have transitioned many people off welfare very successfully. Now some of these challenges are going to be bigger,'' said Paul Ladd of the welfare department in Tennessee, where welfare rolls have increased 5.5 percent in the last year after being cut by more than half.

And on Capitol Hill, a group of lawmakers said they were taking welfare reform to the next stage as they introduced legislation Tuesday meant to improve child-support collections, increase tax credits for the working poor and encourage employer-sponsored child care.

Declining caseloads have made politicians across the spectrum look good, even as some have cautioned that changes to the welfare system will not be truly tested until the economy skids and time limits force some poor people off the rolls.

Nationally, the welfare rolls peaked in 1994 at nearly 14.3 million people, mostly single women and their children. Pushed by tough new rules and aided by the strongest economy in a generation, the number of people on welfare had fallen by nearly 60 percent to fewer than 5.8 million people by September 2000, according to data that the Department of Health and Human Services is preparing to release.

But the decline has slowed dramatically.

Nationally, the number of recipients fell by less than 1 percent between June and September, the most recent month for which data are available. That's compared with a 4 percent decline in the preceding three months and a 3 percent decline during the same months in 1999.

The evidence of slowdown is even clearer when examined by state.

Between June and September of 2000, 11 states saw their welfare rolls increase by more than 3 percent, while 10 saw drops of more than 3 percent.

By contrast, during the preceding three months, from March to June, only five states saw their caseloads increase by 3 percent, while 29 saw drops that large. Similarly, in 1999, just four states saw their caseloads rise by 3 percent between June and September, while 34 saw them drop by that much.

Meanwhile, in certain states, massive declines in the number of people getting food stamps also appear to be coming to a halt, according to an analysis by Wendell Primus, a welfare expert at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

During the last six months of 2000, 13 states showed food-stamp cases increase by more than 3 percent, versus just four states in the last six months of 1999, Primus said. And nationally, food-stamp caseloads increased slightly between June and December after considerable drops.

Some of the leveling off is expected.

Some remaining cash-assistance cases are ``child-only,'' where a poor child qualifies for aid but his or her guardian _ often a grandparent or other relative _ does not and therefore is not subject to work rules.

Others remaining have exceptionally challenging problems _ very little education or work experience, drug addiction, mental health problems or a history of domestic violence _ that make it difficult to provide for themselves.

``The people who could go to work have gone to work,'' said Rita Dobrich, a welfare administrator in West Virginia, where caseloads rose by about 8 percent over the last year after plummeting 70 percent. She said the rise is due to increased benefits and looser eligibility rules.

Experts suspect that the tough new work requirements that came in 1996 may have done what they can to move people off the rolls.

``There is a widespread recognition that there are people on the rolls who are highly disadvantaged and they are going to be very challenging cases,'' said Ron Haskins, a welfare expert at the Brookings Institution who helped write the 1996 welfare law when he worked for Congress. ``The states are definitely beginning to think about this.''