Social workers here call it a case for “The X-Files.”
Hundreds of welfare families in rural, impoverished areas of northeast Washington have vanished.
They stopped collecting welfare checks, pulled kids out of school, vacated low-cost apartments.
No one is sure where they went.
But state officials credit strict work requirements and time limits on public assistance for declining rolls in an area that was once deemed the welfare capital of Washington.
“It’s an indicator that WorkFirst is on the right track,” said Carl McMinimy, an administrator for the state Department of Social and Health Services.
WorkFirst, the state’s new welfare program, requires almost all recipients to hunt for jobs and imposes a five-year lifetime limit on assistance.
Many theories are offered to explain what happened to the 335 families in Okanogan, Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties who’ve left the dole since WorkFirst began in July.
Welfare caseloads in Spokane County fell by 8 percent since July - half the drop reported in Newport, Republic and Okanogan offices.
Social service officials are convinced the families left depressed towns for more fertile job markets in Spokane and Seattle.
Some of the former recipients were probably able-bodied and shouldn’t have been on welfare anyway, said state Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient.
But few people aware of the trend are suggesting the parents found work in northeast Washington.
Poor residents in the region were exempt from work under past welfare programs because jobs were so scarce.
Double-digit unemployment remains. A recent job list for all of Pend Oreille County offered just four positions.
“There are not enough new jobs for all the people coming off public assistance - that we know,” said Brent Grening, executive director of Trico Economic Development District, which recruits businesses to northeast Washington.
“That’s why we’re suspicious, or concerned. People are having to move into Spokane for jobs, I think.”
Even if they could find jobs, there’s a shortage of child care, and almost none is offered after hours, said Barry LaMont, director of Northeast Washington Rural Resources, a nonprofit social service agency.
Public transportation is so bad in the northeastern counties that legislators want to let welfare recipients ride school buses to job training or GED classes.
“I don’t know where the people are going,” said LaMont. “We’re hearing nothing. I think those are questions the state needs to answer.”
With no one officially tracking welfare recipients as they leave the dole, there’s no way of knowing for sure.
But public school enrollment figures show families have left the area in unexpectedly high numbers.
More than 120 students left the Newport School District over the summer. Fifty-eight students, or 10 percent of the student body, left Republic schools.
“It sounds like the (welfare reform) bill is doing what it’s intended to do - get people to work,” said Duane Reidenbach, Republic School District superintendent.
“But it’s the rural communities that are hurting because people are leaving.”
Newport superintendent Rich McBride agrees. “There was some understanding that we would see an exodus (because of welfare reform), but I don’t think anyone expected to see one of this magnitude,” he said.
Most of the students leaving Newport and Republic qualified for free lunches, meaning their families are poor.
And most went to Spokane, according to school officials, who tracked the students through requests for transcripts.
However, Spokane District 81 administrators said they haven’t seen an increase in free or reduced-price lunches, and no Spokane County school district has experienced a deluge of new students.
Fritzi Reber, head of the Newport welfare office, says she was surprised by the 18 percent plunge in her caseload.
Some may have left Pend Oreille County because of a new fraud investigator assigned to her office, she said. The investigator, the only one in the state assigned to a specific county, checks on about 40 families a month, looking for people who fudged welfare applications.
Acknowledging there aren’t enough jobs for all welfare recipients, Reber said some likely left.
“The client is going to have 60 months (on welfare), and we’re going to do everything we can to help them. But if they don’t (find work), they still only have 60 months,” said Reber.
“Some clients realize that very quickly, and think, ‘For my family’s sake, I may want to move where there are jobs.”’ The exodus will hurt businesses, which are already struggling to survive a flagging timber industry, said Grening, the economic recruiter in Colville.
Welfare spending in Stevens, Ferry and Pend Oreille counties is about $40 million a year. No business payroll rivals that, he said.
“If a company had a $40 million payroll and was scaling back, we’d be real concerned,” said Grening.
“We’re going to have to make up for it other ways,” he added, suggesting the counties market themselves as tourist destinations.
Greg Seeber, owner of Seeber’s Pharmacy on Newport’s Main Street, estimates almost half of his customers are on public assistance. Business is down at least 10 percent since last spring.
“The way I feel about, it’s going to be tough on my business,” he said.
“On the other hand, it’s better for society. It’s kind of a balancing act, and I guess we’re going to feel it on Main Street.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Disappearing welfare cases