State Welfare Rolls Feel Impact Of Recession

Welfare caseloads have been going up in most states over the past year, but not in every state. In fact, cases are going down in some of the hardest-hit areas. That's raised questions about whether the program is an adequate safety net for families in need.

It took a while for caseloads to begin rising, as the effects of the recession sank in. Florida, for example, has 14 percent more cases than it did a year ago. Don Winstead, deputy secretary of the state's Department of Children and Families, says that is as it should be.

"In a declining economy, you would expect the caseload to go up, and that's certainly what we're seeing," Winstead says. "And in the areas of the state where the economy's been hit hardest — southwest Florida, in the Tampa Bay area — are places where you see the highest increases in the caseloads."

But in Michigan, it's a different story. That state, with the nation's highest unemployment rate, has been seeing a declining welfare caseload. Michigan's director of Adult and Family Services, Barbara Anders, thinks one reason is that people are leaving the state. Another is that many who have stayed behind are receiving unemployment benefits.

"Right now you can get up to 79 weeks of unemployment," Anders says. "And if you're receiving unemployment, you're usually receiving too much in benefits to make you eligible for cash assistance from our area."

A Less Than Perfect Social Safety Net

She says there was a small increase in welfare cases in April, and she expects that turnaround to continue as unemployment insurance runs out. But advocates for the poor think the real reason for the decline, here and elsewhere, is that changes made to welfare in 1996 — to get people off the rolls and into jobs — are now hurting those in need.

"What we see so far is a safety net that is weaker and slower than we would have hoped," says Liz Schott of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

Schott says few states have seen big increases in their rolls. Utah saw a 29 percent jump in caseloads — the highest in the nation. Most of the increases have been modest.

And according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, not only Michigan but Texas, Georgia, Indiana, Alaska, Montana, New Jersey and Nebraska have had caseloads decline. Schott thinks one reason is that poor people have decided to seek other options, such as help from family and friends.

"And some of that is because cash assistance has been made such an unattractive program to receive that families may be choosing to not get on," Schott says. "Or they may be trying to get on and not succeeding."

Seeking Help Elsewhere

Rekeya Mitchell of Flint, Mich., found out in March that she was temporarily dropped from the state's cash assistance program, which she relied upon for herself and her three children.

"I really didn't know what to do at that time," Mitchell says. "I lost everything. I didn't — I had nothing to tell my landlord."

Michigan has strict sanctions for welfare recipients who don't comply with work or other requirements. Mitchell was told she had failed to submit her school attendance records, but she says a caseworker had said she didn't have to.

"They just railroad you, basically, and they put you in this category with everybody else," Mitchell says, adding, "I wasn't the only person it happened to that month. There was three other girls in that room with me. And every last one of us came out of there crying, wondering, 'What am I going to do?' "

Advocates for the poor says the state of Michigan also has required welfare applicants to participate in weeks of job search and training activities before they can get any aid, and that's a big problem for families with no money for transportation and child care.

Barbara Anders of Adult and Family Services admits the state is strict, but she says people are only dropped as a last resort. And she says it's unfair to look at welfare numbers alone.

"I think we're still the safety net," Anders says. "I think we're still providing for our vulnerable families. Because helping them is not just the cash assistance; it's the whole picture. It's the cash assistance, it's the food assistance, it's the medical assistance."

And here, as elsewhere, the use of programs such as food stamps — a lot easier to get than welfare — has gone through the roof.

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