10.26.2009 Policy Points

Missing the Work First Story

A weekend story in The News & Observer of Raleigh discussed changes to the work participation rules associated with the Work First program, North Carolina’s version of the federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families program. These alterations are needed to bring the state into compliance with recent changes in federal policy.

The N&O, however, missed the real story about Work First; namely, just how few adults receive assistance and how limited the program’s impact is.

According to data compiled by the UNC Jordan Institute for Families, North Carolina had 27,566 Work First cases (non-diversion) in September. These cases involved 52,062 individuals (approx. 0.6 percent of the state population). Of the total cases, 65 percent involved only children while children accounted for 82 percent of the individuals receiving assistance. Additionally, the median payment in September equaled $236. image 1

Since the “welfare reform” of the late 1990s, the Work First program has seen its significance as a social program decline sharply. The total caseload has fallen by 79 percent (graph, right), and the program now touches less than one percent of the state’s residents.

Additionally, the program is no longer reflective of larger economic conditions. Since the onset of the recession in December 2007 and September 2009, the monthly Work First caseload has remained relatively flat (down 0.3 percent).

image 2In contrast, the number of households receiving Food Stamp assistance has soared.  Between the start of the recession and September 2009, the Food Stamp caseload grew by 35 percent. Last month, 1.3 million North Carolinians — approximately 14 percent of the state’s population — lived in a household receiving food assistance.

The disconnect between the directions of  the Work First and Food Stamp caseloads (graph, above) illustrates just how small a role Work First plays in aiding families struggling with economic hardship.

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