- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

Welfare rolls fell again last year even though an economic slowdown pushed more people into poverty, federal data show.

Numbers released by the U.S. Census Bureau yesterday show the number of people living in poverty during 2002 grew slightly, from 12.1 percent to 12.4 percent and the portion of children living in poverty, from 16.4 percent to 17.2 percent. This translates to roughly 1.4 million more people in poverty for a total of 34.7 million, the bureau’s American Community Survey states.

Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services, said the survey shows that the current, work-oriented welfare system is “reasonably recession-proof.”

Despite the sluggish economy, fewer families went on public assistance, a HHS report, also released yesterday, states.

The number of people in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash-welfare program fell 4.3 percent from March 2002 to 2003, from nearly 5.19 million to 4.96 million. And the number of families on welfare fell 2 percent, from 2.08 million to 2.04 million.

“Americans are demonstrating that they want to be self-sufficient and economically independent for the benefit of themselves and their children,” HHS Secretary Tommy G. Thompson said.

Mr. Thompson called on Congress to renew the landmark 1996 law, which expired almost a year ago, on Sept. 30, and has been temporarily extended ever since.

The House has twice passed a bill to update the welfare law, but neither a Democrat-led nor Republican-led Senate has managed to bring a bill to the floor. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said he was pleased to see the latest caseload numbers.

“However, simply going off welfare doesn’t mean families have achieved significant income and job security,” he said.

The next phase of welfare reform should include more state flexibility, more funds for child care and transportation, increased options for education and training, stronger emphasis on job attainment and experience, and a renewed emphasis on “healthy families” as a way to improve child well-being, Mr. Grassley said.

The senator added that he hoped the Finance Committee would produce a bipartisan bill this fall.

Locally, yesterday’s census numbers showed that between 2001 and 2002, poverty fell in the District but ticked up in Virginia.

The District’s poverty rate fell from 18.1 percent to 17.5 percent, but it remained a very poor area — fourth-highest on a national ranking, after Mississippi, New Mexico and Louisiana.

West Virginia, with a poverty rate of 17.2 percent in both 2001 and 2002, was fifth-highest in the poverty ranking.

In Virginia, poverty rose from 9.3 percent to 9.9 percent, earning it a ranking as the 40th poorest state. Maryland had one of the lowest poverty rates — 8.1 percent — in both 2001 and 2002, making it the 47th poorest state.

Regarding welfare, HHS data from March 2002 to March 2003 shows that rolls grew in Virginia and the District, but fell in Maryland and West Virginia.

Virginia’s caseload swelled 4.1 percent to 70,199 persons, while the District’s caseload grew 1.5 percent to 43,136 persons. Maryland’s caseload fell the most — 7.7 percent — to 62,066 persons while West Virginia’s caseload fell by 3.8 percent, to 41,478 persons.

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