WASHINGTON -- The number of people on welfare rose in three-quarters of the states last summer and the national total crept up as well, as low-wage jobs became more scarce, a private survey of the states finds.
In many states, the increases are small. But the rising numbers in so many states are in contrast to the striking decline that swept the country in the mid-late 1990s, when the economy was booming and strict new rules were pushing people from the rolls.
In 1994, more than 5 million families received cash assistance each month. That had plummeted to just over 2 million by July.
The Center for Law and Social Policy, a liberal research group, surveyed the states and found that the rolls rose between July and September in 38 states and the District of Columbia, with an average jump of 2 percent. Official figures for that quarter are not yet out.
Nationally, the group found a small increase of 0.9 percent in the number of families receiving assistance.
In Mississippi, caseloads have risen by 10 percent since July, and state officials aren't sure why.
"We should accept in this economy that the welfare rolls will rise," said Vera Butler, who directs Mississippi's welfare program. There are now just under 20,000 families getting welfare there; the number had fallen to below 15,000.
The Health and Human Services Department has not reported a national increase in the welfare figures since the rolls began dropping in 1994.
In May, the government said welfare caseloads fell slightly at the end of 2001, though updated numbers now on the HHS Web site show that the caseloads actually crept up in the final months of last year, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The department has not called attention to the revision.
The figures are important for both welfare policy and politics. Conservatives have typically argued that tough welfare rules can succeed in good and bad economic times alike, and they point to the falling numbers as proof. Liberals contend that these tough rules won't work when low-wage jobs that require little education, training and experience are scarce.
Changes in the welfare program have been debated for the last year in Congress, which must renew the landmark program it created in 1996.
Unable to reach agreement this year, lawmakers simply extended the current law and vowed to try again in 2003. Major issues yet to be resolved include whether states should be required to put more people on welfare to work for their benefits, as President Bush wants, and whether Washington should give states more money for child care, which Democrats want.
The figures released by the center will probably differ only slightly from the official numbers when they come out, Mark Greenberg, a welfare expert who helped with the study.
"What's striking here is the consistency," he said. "More than three-quarters of the states saw caseload increases."
He attributed the rise to the weak economy and increasing number of people without jobs. The nation's unemployment rate jumped to 6 percent in November, matching an eight-year high set in April. Some economists believe the jobless rate could move to 6.3 percent or 6.5 percent by the spring of 2003.
Greenberg added that caseloads could rise more as unemployment benefits run out, as they did for more than 750,000 families last week.
In most states, caseloads are close to their historic lows, and they have not risen nearly as much as liberals predicted would be the case.
Nor has the nation seen the sort of worst-case scenarios -- starving, homeless children and families -- that opponents of the 1996 welfare law warned about.
Greenberg said it's not clear why states have not seen larger caseload increases when the economy is so tough. It's possible, he said, that many people have gained work experience over the last few years and now are able to cope better without welfare, or that they now qualify for unemployment benefits because they have a job history.
"That's certainly the hope," he said.
It's also possible that many people are no longer eligible for assistance because they have used up their time on welfare, he said, or that the state has made it difficult to apply for help.
"It's now harder to get assistance when a family needs help," he said.
Steve Barbour, a spokesman for HHS's welfare agency, said the Bush administration had no comment and would be releasing its own figures in late January.
On the Net: Center for Law and Social Policy: http://www.clasp.org
HHS welfare caseload data: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/news/stats/newsta...