I remember some months after 9/11 when my unemployment checks ran out, there were no jobs to be found, I couldn't pay my rent and I desperately needed health care. So I swallowed my pride and applied for assistance. That's when I found out I'd simply made too much money in the past year to be eligible.
And that's when I began to wonder about the so-called "safety net." Did it actually exist for the working class? Apparently not, and that's when I realized the reality of Bill Clinton's welfare "reform" - it's only for the hardcore, chronically poor. Everyone else has earned too much or has too many assets to qualify.
So my guess is, the welfare rolls aren't going up because in most cases, those unemployed in the past year simply aren't eligible. The story would be a lot more informative if it looked at the number of applications that were turned down:
WASHINGTON — Despite soaring unemployment and the worst economic crisis in decades, 18 states cut their welfare rolls last year, and nationally the number of people receiving cash assistance remained at or near the lowest in more than 40 years.
The trends, based on an analysis of new state data collected by The New York Times, raise questions about how well a revamped welfare system with great state discretion is responding to growing hardships.
Michigan cut its welfare rolls 13 percent, though it was one of two states whose October unemployment rate topped 9 percent. Rhode Island, the other, had the nation’s largest welfare decline, 17 percent.
Of the 12 states where joblessness grew most rapidly, eight reduced or kept constant the number of people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the main cash welfare program for families with children. Nationally, for the 12 months ending October 2008, the rolls inched up a fraction of 1 percent.
The deepening recession offers a fresh challenge to the program, which was passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 amid bitter protest and became one of the most closely watched social experiments in modern memory.
The program, which mostly serves single mothers, ended a 60-year-old entitlement to cash aid, replacing it with time limits and work requirements, and giving states latitude to discourage people from joining the welfare rolls. While it was widely praised in the boom years that followed, skeptics warned it would fail the needy when times turned tough.
Supporters of the program say the flat caseloads may reflect a lag between the loss of a job and the decision to seek help. They also say the recession may have initially spared the low-skilled jobs that many poor people take.
But critics argue that years of pressure to cut the welfare rolls has left an obstacle-ridden program that chases off the poor, even when times are difficult.