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Warren County welfare checks plummet

[3/25/04]Welfare checks in Warren County are down by nearly half again from dramatically lower levels following the national reforms in the basic aid program administered by states.

Payments through what is now known as TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) were already down 47 percent from 1992 until 1998, largely due to the employment boom created here by casinos and hotels, and were 44 percent lower in 2002 than they were in 1998 records show.

The Warren County office, without a director for 21 months, is a division of the state Department of Human Services.

County payments for the program in 1992, when it was still called AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), were $1,939,115. By 1998 that number was down to $707,323, and by 2002 it had dropped to $395,703.

The major change enacted by Congress was a lifetime individual limit of five years of assistance, hence “temporary” in the name, except in unusual cases. DHS officials said that limit accounts for most of the drop in payments.

For participants classified as able-bodied, the time to become self-sufficient is even shorter, said the DHS’ director of economic assistance, Cheryl Sparkman. The exemptions that can extend enrollment up to five years apply in certain circumstances, she added.

The program’s incentives for people to find work have succeeded, officials said. Many of those who have stopped receiving payments from the program may also be “doing without” because of the new requirements to seek employment, said former Warren County DHS director Lula Jones, who retired at the end of June 2002 after 27 years with the department, including 18 as director.

TANF is one of myriad aid programs, but the number of families receiving food stamps also showed a drastic drop locally of 33 percent between 1995 and 1998.

Numbers in the program that provides coupons or debit cards to enrollees has remained essentially level since. The number for January of this year was 2,366 recipients, 30 lower than that of 5 1/2 years ago. The figure is down by 1,221 from the June 1995 number, which was 3,587.

the five-year limit is only for TANF, but people receiving food stamps also face job-seeking or community-service requirements.

The TANF program offers transitional financial help for transportation for job-seeking. Those who exit the program early may continue to receive supplemental payments in addition to their paychecks for several months.

Acting as director of the county office since Jones left is regional director Herbert Scott. The DHS faces a budget deficit, mostly due to health-care outlays in the Division of Medicaid, and is under a self-imposed hiring suspension in many areas. The department’s director, Don Taylor, said that suspension would not apply to the local top job.

“If we can find someone to put in that position, we’re going to do it,” he said.

oday, the Warren County office has about 40 employees, a figure Jones has more than tripled during her tenure.

“When I first took over we used to have lines outside the door to get food stamps and there were all kinds of problems,” she said, adding that she and her staff soon had the situation under control and had expanded the office’s service.

“We got more people on assistance because we had the staff to complete more cases,” she said.