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N.C. CUTS NUMBER ON WELFARE ROLLS\ BUT FEW OF THE STATE'S WELFARE RECIPIENTS ARE WORKING OR PREPARING TO WORK.

N.C. CUTS NUMBER ON WELFARE ROLLS\ BUT FEW OF THE STATE'S WELFARE RECIPIENTS ARE WORKING OR PREPARING TO WORK.

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North Carolina has cut the number of its welfare recipients by more than 50 percent since 1995, but of the families remaining on welfare, few are working or preparing to work, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Monday.

Less than 15 percent of North Carolina's adult welfare recipients were working last year or actively preparing themselves for work, the agency said.North Carolina reported the second-lowest percentage in the nation, ranking behind only Maryland, which reported 12.7 percent of its welfare recipients working or preparing to do so. Those recipients preparing themselves for work include people who are searching for a job or who are receiving vocational training.

Monday's announcement follows the first full year of work data available under the 1996 welfare reform law. The law stipulates that 30 percent of adults on welfare should work at least 20 hours a week, but the requirement is lower in states that have substantially cut their caseloads, as North Carolina has.

Officials at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Resources said the report was disappointing, but they hoped it wouldn't overshadow the success of welfare reform or the state's welfare-to-work program, Work First.

North Carolina has seen the number of families on welfare decline by 54 percent from 113,485 to 51,752 since 1995, when Work First was started.

Lois Nielsen, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the state's low ranking was surprising.

``We need to figure out what it means,' Nielsen said. ``If other states are doing something we're not, we need to know.'

Oregon, Montana, Wisconsin, Iowa and Wyoming reported the highest employment rates for welfare recipients.

Some welfare officials said North Carolina residents who remain on welfare are more difficult to help than those who have begun receiving a paycheck.

``It's a harder population to place,' said Deborah Cook Harris, program manager at Guilford County's Department of Social Services.

``They have more barriers. There's more substance abuse.' About 35 percent of welfare recipients nationwide are working or preparing themselves for work, the Clinton Administration said Saturday.

In 1998, all 50 states and the District of Columbia met overall targets required for states to receive their full federal block grants.

State-by-state data weren't available until Monday.

North Carolina did meet its overall employment target of 10 percent for welfare-to-work families, but the state failed to meet the target of 55 percent for two-parent homes. Only 30.9 percent of two-parent welfare homes were working or pursuing work. Under the new welfare law, this means the state could lose part of its annual federal block grant.

That penalty is based on the percentage of two-parent families in the state's caseload, said Pheon Beal, chief of the economic independence section at the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. Because less than 1 percent of the North Carolina families on welfare have two parents, the penalty won't be more than about $150,000.

Beal said the state has greatly reduced the number of residents receiving welfare checks. Those who are still on welfare are considered ``hardship cases,' families who have additional barriers to overcome.

``The families that are left are difficult to work with,' she said.

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