July 16, 1997 in Nation/World

Idaho Posts Big Decline In Welfare Rolls Numbers Decrease By 60%; State Unsure If Reform Or Other Factors At Work

Ken Olsen The Associated Press Contributed To This Staff writer
 

Two weeks into welfare reform, dramatic declines in case numbers give the impression Idaho won’t need a program at all in a couple of years.

But state Health and Welfare Department officials aren’t certain how much of the drop is due to successful reform and how much is attributed to people missing paperwork deadlines, moving or finding seasonal employment that will only temporarily keep them off assistance.

Last year, there were about 1,200 welfare cases in the five northern counties. Today that number is down to 435 cases, said Steve McKenna, regional manager of what the state now calls its “self-reliance program.”

This 60 percent drop is reflected across the state. Health and Welfare recorded 7,891 cases a year ago throughout Idaho and now tallies 3,138.

The drop has been under way for several months, McKenna said. “It’s not like the light switch went off.”

He attributes the decline to several factors, including new rules that require people receiving cash assistance to be working or looking for work 20 hours a week. McKenna also credits Idaho’s aggressive efforts to collect child support from dead-beat parents.

Health and Welfare fields steady inquiries from area employers looking for people to put to work. And the agency tries to help with child care “to keep people headed in the direction of self-reliance,” McKenna said.

Some recipients may have moved to Washington state, which has more generous benefits, shifting the load instead of reducing it.

Other factors belie the impression that changing the welfare system is as easy as it now appears. In the past, welfare recipients could receive cash assistance, called Aid to Families with Dependent Children, as well as Food Stamps and Medicaid.

While the number of people receiving cash assistance has dropped significantly, changes in the number of people receiving Food Stamps or Medicaid benefits is insignificant, said David Ensunsa, a Health and Welfare spokesman.

There is another hitch. In order to continue receiving cash assistance, now called Temporary Assistance For Families in Idaho, people must sign a personal responsibility contract.

Those who did not sign the contract by June 20 lost their benefits in July. But they could potentially correct that paperwork problem and return to the rolls anytime.

Health and Welfare anticipated a 25 to 30 percent drop in case numbers and is surprised that it’s double that. But because work is easier to find in summer and because some of the drop may be related to the personal responsibility contract, state officials aren’t chiseling the figures in stone. Idaho’s robust economy also is a factor and if it cools off, so may the state’s welfare reform trend.

“It would not surprise us for those numbers to take a bump upwards,” Ensunsa said.

Health and Welfare is conducting an extensive survey to find out why people dropped out of the program. Results are expected in August and also will be used to fine-tune Idaho’s program.

Meanwhile, there is anecdotal evidence that some former welfare recipients quit taking benefits because of the hassles and because the level of cash support is significantly lower.

Single mother Melissa Sheldahl of Boise is typical of those leaving the program. She said she grew weary of caseworkers threatening to reduce her $276 check for failing to provide proof she is looking for a job, and plans to quit the program this week.

“I’m going to just call her and say, ‘Forget it. I will do it all on my own,”’ said Sheldahl, who hopes a $150 child-support check and a yet-to-be-found retail sales job will pay the bills.

, DataTimes MEMO: Cut in Spokane edition

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Ken Olsen Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Cut in Spokane edition

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Ken Olsen Staff writer The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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