As Economy Slides, More People Seek Assistance

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Welfare dates to the Great Depression, when the federal government in 1935 created a program as part of the Social Security Act to provide financial support for poor children. In the early 1960s, welfare expanded into Aid to Families With Dependent Children to give cash assistance to parents, too. Over the years, welfare became stigmatized, first among conservatives and eventually some Democrats, who regarded "welfare queens" as emblems of people who lived in poverty with too little self-initiative and too much reliance on a government entitlement. When Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, he became the first Democratic president to embrace the Republican call to "end welfare as we know it," and four years later he pushed through Congress a transformation of the welfare system. Under the new version, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the entitlement was changed to a fixed block grant in which states have greater freedom in deciding how to use the money, recipients are limited to no more than five years of financial help, and there is new emphasis on quickly putting people to work.

Since the creation of TANF, the number of U.S. families getting cash assistance has plunged by two-thirds, from a high of 5 million in the mid-1990s to 1.7 million in 2007. But after years of falling or steady caseloads in almost every state, including new reductions prompted by federal rule changes two years ago, welfare rolls have begun to increase in recent months, spurred by the bad economy. Here is what is happening in some states.


District of Columbia: Welfare cases hit an all-time low of 14,673 in May but climbed by October to 15,843, an 8 percent increase.

Maryland: From a low of about 48,000 cases in the spring of 2007, welfare rolls expanded by 15 percent to 55,000 by September, then grew by another 2,500 cases in October alone.

Virginia: The state had 3 percent more cases in October than a year earlier, but the more dramatic increase was in applications, which jumped during that time by 28 percent, from 5,115 to 6,522.

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