THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Welfare rolls see first climb in years

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post / December 18, 2008
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FORT MYERS, Fla. - For the first time since welfare was redefined a dozen years ago, weaning millions of poor Americans from monthly government checks, the deteriorating economy is causing a surge in welfare rolls in a growing number of states.

The swelling caseloads pose the first hard test of the premise behind transforming the old system of welfare, once considered an open-ended right, into a finite program built to provide short-term cash assistance and steer people quickly into jobs.

Though still a fraction of the size they were at their height in the mid-1990s, welfare rolls recently have begun to climb again in at least a dozen states, according to interviews with state officials. In other states, applications are rising, indicating that more people will be on welfare soon.

More striking is who is coming onto the welfare rolls and why. In Florida, as elsewhere, the new face of welfare includes people who have tumbled from the middle class - and higher - after losing jobs, savings, and self-reliance. And some are returning to welfare years after they thought they had found permanent work and independence. In the county that includes Fort Myers, nearly 40 percent of the 812 people who applied for welfare in October had never before asked for help.

"I got to do what I got to do to get by," Toni Robinette, 33 and five months pregnant, said as she sat in front of a computer terminal at Fort Myers' Regional Service Center, typing an application for cash assistance. She and her husband, Jason, opened Tip Top Tile in Cape Coral in 1996, and most years they earned about $50,000. The business failed three years ago as the building boom collapsed. Toni has applied for dozens of jobs. She got interviews at Walgreens and Wendy's but no offers.

Such an environment revives a debate that swirled in the early years after Congress abolished Aid to Families With Dependent Children, as welfare used to be known, and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, with its strict time limits for benefits and work requirements. Caseloads nationwide dropped far beyond expectations. How much of that decline was due to the program's new rules - and how much to good economic times?

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