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In most states, welfare caseloads have been going up over the past year, but not in every state. In some places hardest-hit by the recession, caseloads are actually going down. NPR's Pam Fessler explains.
PAM FESSLER: It's taken a while to kick in, but welfare caseloads are rising in many areas as the effects of the recession sink 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's as it should be.
Mr. DON WINSTEAD (Deputy Secretary, Department of Children and Families): In a declining economy, you would expect the caseload to go up, and that's certainly what we're seeing. 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.
FESSLER: 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 getting unemployment benefits.
Ms. BARBARA ANDERS (Director, Adult and Family Services): Right now, you can get up to 79 weeks of unemployment. And if you're receiving unemployment, you're usually receiving too much in benefits to make you eligible for cash assistance from our area.
FESSLER: 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 that 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.
Ms. LIZ SCHOTT (Welfare Analyst, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities): What we see so far is a safety net that is weaker and slower than we would have hoped.
FESSLER: Liz Schott of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington says only a few states have seen big increases in their rolls. Utah with 29 percent is the biggest. 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 their caseloads decline. Schott thinks one reason is that poor people have decided to seek other options, such as help from family and friends.
Ms. SCHOTT: 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, or they may be trying to get on and not succeeding.
Ms. REKEYA MITCHELL: I really didn't know what to do at that time. I lost everything. I couldn't — I had nothing to tell my landlord.
FESSLER: Rekeya Mitchell of Flint, Michigan, found out in March that she was temporarily dropped from the state's cash assistance program, which she relied upon for herself and three children. Michigan has strict sanctions for those who don't comply with work or other requirements. Mitchell was told she hadn't submitted school attendance records, but she says a caseworker said she didn't have to.
Ms. MITCHELL: They just railroad you, basically, and they put you in this category with everybody else. You know, and I wasn't the only person it happened to in that month. You know, there was three other girls in that room with me. And every last one of us come out of there crying, wondering, what are we going to have - what am I going to do?
FESSLER: Advocates for the poor say the state also requires 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's strict, but says people are only dropped as a last resort. And she says it's unfair to look at welfare numbers alone.
Ms. ANDERS: I think we're still the safety net. 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.
FESSLER: And here, as elsewhere, the use of programs such as food stamps — a lot easier to get than welfare — has gone through the roof.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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