Washington After six years of remarkable decline, the number of Americans on welfare has begun to rise in about a dozen states and has stopped falling in most others.
Caseloads are still dropping in nearly a dozen states, and the national total is still creeping down, but for most of the country, it appears that the days of ever-shrinking welfare rolls have come to an end.
"The people who could go to work have gone to work," said Rita Dobrich, a welfare administrator in West Virginia, where caseloads rose by about 8 percent above the last year after plummeting 70 percent.
It's not entirely clear why some states are seeing their caseloads rise, and officials fear the situation may only get worse if the economy weakens.
Nationally, the welfare rolls peaked in 1994 at nearly 14.3 million people, mostly single women and their children. Amid tough new rules and the strongest economy in a generation, they began a dramatic decline, falling further and faster than anyone predicted.
By September 2000, the number of people on welfare had fallen by nearly 60 percent to fewer than 5.8 million people, according to data that the Department of Health and Human Services is preparing to release.
But the decline which reached 20 percent in one year has dramatically slowed. Nationally, the number of recipients fell by less than 1 percent between June and September, the most recent month for which data are available.
That's compared with a 4 percent decline in the preceding three months and a 3 percent decline during the same months in 1999.
The evidence of slowdown is even clearer when examined by state.
Between June and September of 2000, 11 states saw their welfare rolls increase by more than 3 percent, while 10 saw drops of more than 3 percent.
By contrast, during the preceding three months, from March to June, only five states saw their caseloads increase by 3 percent, while 29 saw drops that large. Similarly, in 1999, just four states saw their caseloads rise by 3 percent between June and September, while 34 saw them drop by that much.
Some states continue to see their caseloads drop, including New York and California, where one in three of the nation's recipients live. As long as caseloads in big states fall, the national number is likely to continue dropping. No figures for Kansas were immediately available.
Since September, the economy has showed signs of weakness, and officials fear that a shortage of jobs could drive more people to government aid.
Even in a strong economy, welfare experts have known that the numbers would eventually have to level off.
"These caseloads can't keep dropping forever," said Wendell Primus, a welfare expert at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, who examined food stamp caseloads.
During the last six months of 2000, 13 states showed food-stamp cases increase by more than 3 percent, versus just four states in the last six months of 1999, Primus said. And nationally, food-stamp caseloads increased slightly between June and December after considerable drops.