Welfare rolls show 3-year decline

Surprising drop occurs faster than many expected

March 22, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- In a trend that has surprised many experts, the federal welfare rolls have declined over the past three years, even as unemployment, poverty and the number of food stamp recipients have surged in a weak economy.

After Congress overhauled the nation's welfare system in 1996, the number of families receiving benefits dropped much faster than federal and state officials had expected. Even more remarkable, officials say, the rolls did not grow during the recession of 2001 or the sluggish economy since.

In fact, in the past three years, the number of families on welfare has declined slightly, to 2 million, which is less than half the number when President Bill Clinton signed the welfare law in August 1996.

Experts suggest many reasons. People work harder to find jobs before seeking public assistance. Welfare recipients have learned job skills and a work ethic. States provide child care and other noncash help so they can keep jobs after leaving welfare. And, some experts say, new rules and requirements may intimidate poor people from seeking welfare.

Mark H. Greenberg, a lawyer at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a research and advocacy group, said, "One of the great mysteries of social policy in the last few years is why welfare caseloads have stayed essentially flat or declined in much of the country, despite the economic downturn."

In past recessions, newly hired welfare recipients and other low-skilled workers were among the first to lose their jobs.

"Former welfare recipients were entrenched in the work force," said Marva Arnold, an official at the Human Services Department in Illinois, where the number of families on welfare has plunged 45 percent since January 2001, to 38,276.

Food stamps have been more sensitive to fluctuations in the economy. The number of households receiving food stamps has increased 35 percent in the past three years, to 10 million.

Some families have left the cash welfare rolls because they reached the time limits set by federal and state laws. Some have been removed from the rolls as a penalty for failing to comply with work requirements.

In some states, the application process is so difficult or complex that it may discourage people from seeking public assistance for which they are eligible.

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