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Poverty Up as Welfare Enrollment Declines

But Bravo also sees self-interest at play for states that aren't receiving enough money from the federal government and feel compelled to pinch pennies. Instead of seeking to help those in need, she said, many state agencies are following an informal "don't ask, don't tell" policy by which they don't inform people that they are eligible for assistance unless they are specifically asked. "The [welfare] agencies are worried about not having enough money," she said. "They put pressure on the people who are applying. And as a result, people are being sent away who shouldn't be."

Mark Golden, who administers the welfare program in Virginia, said his state does not intentionally discourage people from receiving benefits. But he acknowledged that some people inevitably slip through the cracks because of the number of applications caseworkers have to handle. "They're inundated," he said. "I wouldn't say it's linked to welfare reform. That kind of thing is probably more linked to workload."

Golden said Virginia has made changes since welfare reform was passed that give people more access to benefits, not less. He pointed to a rule enacted last year that allows parents receiving child support to continue getting payments even after they sign up for welfare. Previously, they were forced to choose between the two.

Taylor said she was never informed of the new rule. "They go through everything and at 100 miles per hour, send you back out the door," she said. "If they had told me, I would have [enrolled]. Who's going to pass up help?"

She certainly could have used it. For several months, she and her youngest child were homeless -- bouncing around from couch to couch at friends' homes and trying in vain to make their food stamps stretch to the end of each month.

More recently, they've been living at Taylor's boyfriend's home in Williamsburg.

A part-time, $7-an-hour job at a grocery store helped for a while. But that didn't last either: When she failed to show up on a weekend that she had told her boss she could not work, she was fired.

Taylor wants to stay off welfare and reclaim the feeling of independence she had learned to love. That's not possible unless she finds work soon. To tide her family over, she is helping her boyfriend with his home-improvement business and creating artwork to sell at flea markets.

But as soon as she can, she plans to go to the local social services office to look for a job that will provide a steady paycheck. And while she is there, she will fill out an application to go back on welfare.

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