The long arm of former President Bill Clinton's welfare reform continues to lift Wake County residents off the public dime, but participation in the time-limited Work First program has slowed amid the stagnant economy and rising unemployment rate.
When Clinton's program to "end welfare as we know it" started in North Carolina in 1995, Work First was helping more than 5,000 Wake households, a number that had been roughly cut in half by the beginning of this month. Across North Carolina, the Work First caseload had decreased from about 87,000 in 1997 to about 27,000 in 2008 before climbing toward 30,000 again as the economy came close to melting down.
"We had seen some uptick in applications starting in 2008, with the economy," said Barbara Harris, program manager for Work First in Wake.
Work First participants also may have access to child-care programs, food stamps, subsidized housing, job training programs, financial counseling, Medicaid and other services.
"We help them look at reasons why, if they have been employed, they had trouble sustaining it," Harris said.
Recipients can stay in Work First for only two years at a time and five years over a lifetime. County officials said the typical client is a single female between the ages of 18 and 24, with one to two children, who has lost a job or never had one.
The program doesn't work for everyone. People receiving unemployment benefits routinely earn more than the income guidelines for Work First. And for some, the monthly payment, $236 for a family of two, isn't worth the requirements recipients have to meet - being able to prove that they are working, going to school or looking for a job before they receive any benefits.
Usage also varies across the state. Mecklenburg, with a higher unemployment rate, saw a 70 percent increase in applications to Work First between December 2007 and last month. The increase in Wake was about 13 percent.
Some critics say Work First, created during the mid-1990s, needs revamping to work better during a recession.
John Quinterno, a social-policy consultant in Chapel Hill, noted that food stamp and unemployment insurance caseloads have been exploding during the recession, but Work First hasn't.
"What we're seeing around the country with the recession is that this program, the way it's been reformed, really doesn't serve as a safety net anymore," he said. "There are some hard questions that need to be asked."
Work First isn't meant to offer the more generous welfare entitlements of the past, said Dean Simpson, chief of the N.C. Department of Social Services' Economic and Family Services Division.
"It is what the name says. It's Work First," she said.
Charlotte Observer reporter Eric Frazier contributed to this report.
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