Welfare Up 11 Percent in Fairfax County, Reversing a Trend

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 2, 2009

After years of declining caseloads, the sputtering economy is causing a surge in welfare rolls in Fairfax County.

From July 1, 2008, to April, the number of cases handled by the Fairfax County Department of Family Services has increased 11 percent. They pose the first hard test of the premise behind transforming the old welfare system, once considered an entitlement, into a defined program, built to provide short-term monetary assistance and steer people quickly into jobs and off public assistance. The increases locally are sharper than the 8 percent spike statewide during the same period.

Although still a fraction of the size they were at their height in the mid-1990s, welfare rolls recently have begun to climb across Northern Virginia, according to state records. In some places, applications are also rising, foreshadowing more people on welfare soon, officials said.

"A lot of jobs have gone away, particularly a lot of low-income jobs," said Tom Steinhauser, director of benefit programs for the Virginia Department of Social Services. "These increases are directly connected to the economy."

Fairfax officials said the economic downturn was a key factor in rising caseloads. In many cases, residents who count on low-wage work have been edged out of those jobs by more skilled and experienced workers. In other cases, officials are seeing more former clients returning to the program, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

"These are people who left [the program] but then have had to return after losing their jobs due to layoffs caused by the downturn," said Belinda Buescher, spokeswoman for Family Services.

The rise in Virginia welfare cases is a dramatic turnaround for a state that has been lauded by federal officials for reducing caseloads consistently for nearly a decade. Last year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services ranked Virginia best in the nation for moving welfare clients into permanent jobs during fiscal 2005 and 2006. Virginia also had the second-highest job retention rate for former aid recipients in the country those years.

Although the recent increases reflect a growing need among the poor and working class during the recession, some analysts who study welfare nationally point out that welfare has been slower to react to the economic downturn than other programs intended to help the poor. For instance, applications for unemployment insurance and food stamps have risen at a much faster rate. Statewide, food stamp caseloads increased 15 percent in Virginia during the period when welfare rose 8 percent. In Fairfax, food stamps rose about 17 percent to welfare's 11 percent. Meanwhile, unemployment insurance claims have more than doubled in Fairfax from 2008 to 2009.

Experts said the discrepancy between the increases in food stamp and unemployment insurance cases and welfare cases indicates that Virginia and other states should do a better job of reaching out to those who might need help. They said Virginia should consider expanding eligibility for the program.

"What states like Virginia need to do is look closely at how they can ensure that families that want and need these services can actually access them, as well as considering expanding programs so more people are eligible," said Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The Washington think tank analyzed state welfare caseload data and compared it with food stamp and unemployment insurance recipient data.

Steinhauser said the discrepancy between welfare rolls and food stamp caseloads is explained by the benefit levels: It's much harder to qualify for welfare than for other programs in Virginia. To be eligible for welfare, a family cannot make more than 21 percent of the federal poverty level and must have a dependent child in the household. People making up to 130 percent of the poverty level can receive food stamps, and eligibility is not contingent on having a dependent child.

Experts noted that Virginia can increase the pool of people for welfare if it would accept $79 million in federal stimulus money designed to help states offer more services to more people, including higher monthly stipends.

Steinhauser said Virginia will likely receive up to $16 million in federal stimulus money but will forgo the additional $63 million because it would call for the state to contribute its own funds.

"It's a sustainability issue," he said. "It would be hard to increase benefits for a family and then tell them we had to drop them back after the federal money ran out."

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