The economic slowdown in Maryland caused a surge last year in the state's welfare caseload, including a sharp increase in the number of working poor and other employed residents needing financial assistance from government, according to a study released yesterday by the University of Baltimore.

The study, which was commissioned by state officials after a surprising increase in the number of welfare cases across the state, found that the typical person who applied for welfare in early 1990 had been employed in a low-paying job with few benefits, and had lost that job in the previous six months.

Most were not covered by unemployment insurance, and had to turn directly to the state for assistance, a finding that some social services officials said debunked a belief that welfare recipients were not interested in working.

"It is not a problem of people who don't work or won't work, but a problem of people who are the last hired and first fired," said Catherine Born, a professor of social policy at the University of Maryland's School of Social Work in Baltimore.

Henry Gunn, the director of the Prince George's Department of Social Services, said the study results suggested that even those employed in regular jobs were vulnerable to worsening economic conditions. In the current recession, "We are seeing people in our waiting rooms we've never seen before: people in three-piece suits," Gunn said.

The study also suggested that because the new welfare applicants tended to be employed in industries hit first during an economic downturn -- manufacturing, the service sector and retail stores -- the welfare data provided an accurate forecast of the state's economic future.

"The caseload serves as a reliable indicator of the economy," said Michael Conte, director of the Center of Business and Economic Studies at the University at Baltimore and author of the study. "It turns up six months to a year before the general downturn in the economy."

During the last 19 months, an average of 483 Maryland households have been added to welfare rolls each month, at a total cost of $40 million, according to state officials. The caseload increase in the state's wealthier suburbs, such as Prince George's, Baltimore and Montgomery counties, was especially pronounced, ranging from 24 percent to 28 percent during one six-month period.

Maryland is not alone in the dramatic increase in households on welfare.

In virtually all areas of the region, the number of families on welfare and food stamps has climbed in the last year, ranging from 5 percent in the District to 14 percent in Arlington and 34 percent in Prince William County, human services workers have reported.

By comparing incarceration rates, divorce statistics, incidents of teenage pregnancy and birth rates of unwed mothers over the last 10 years, the authors of the Maryland study disputed some widely held theories about the surge in welfare cases.

For example, the number of applicants who needed aid because the male head of household was incarcerated, incapacitated from drug use or dead because of violence declined sharply among the first-time applicants.

Twenty-one percent of the women applicants were pregnant when they applied for welfare, down from nearly 30 percent among those who have been on welfare longer, according to the study.

Athough migration to Maryland increased throughout the decade, the study found that the influx did not cause an increase in welfare applications.