FORT MYERS, Fla. - For the first time since welfare was redefined a dozen years ago, weaning millions of poor Americans from monthly government checks, the deteriorating economy is causing a surge in welfare rolls in a growing number of states.
The swelling caseloads pose the first hard test of the premise behind transforming the old system of welfare, once considered an open-ended right, into a finite program built to provide short-term cash assistance and steer people quickly into jobs.
Though still a fraction of the size they were at their height in the mid-1990s, welfare rolls have begun to climb again in at least a dozen states, according to interviews with state officials. In other states, applications are rising, foreshadowing more people on welfare soon.
More striking is who is coming onto welfare and why. In Florida, as elsewhere, the new face of welfare includes people who have tumbled from the middle class - and higher - after losing jobs, savings and self-reliance. And some are returning to welfare years after they thought they had found permanent work and independence.
In the county that includes Fort Myers, nearly 40 percent of the 812 people who applied for welfare in October had never sought help.
"I got to do what I got to do to get by," Toni Robinette, 33 and five months pregnant, said as she sat in front of a computer terminal in Fort Myers' Regional Service Center, typing an application for cash assistance.
She and her husband, Jason, opened Tip Top Tile in Cape Coral in 1996, and most years earned about $50,000. The business failed three years ago as Florida's building boom collapsed. The two have applied for dozens of jobs. She got interviews at Walgreens and Wendy's, but no offers.
Such an environment revives a debate that swirled in the early years after Congress abolished Aid to Families With Dependent Children, as welfare used to be known, and replaced it with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), with its strict time limits for benefits and work requirements. Caseloads nationwide dropped far beyond expectations. How much of that decline, politicians and social scientists debated, was due to tough new rules, and how much to good economic times?
The job-centric nature of welfare remains popular in principle across the political spectrum but harder to put into practice. "If there is no employment out there to get, then what?" asked Shery Bader, employment services manager for Goodwill Industries of Southwest Florida.
The rise in cases is notable because welfare rolls have until now proved less sensitive to economic changes than other government help, such as food stamps and Medicaid. Caseloads rose slightly in a few states during the milder recession of 2001, but the increases were less widespread and pronounced.
Moreover, the new upswing has come just two years after a Republican-led Congress tightened welfare rules, triggering further caseload reductions in much of the country.
In the altered economic climate, experts predict that welfare will awaken from years as a political issue so sleepy that President-elect Barack Obama did not mention it during his campaign.
For some states, the predicament is immediate. The 1996 law replaced a limitless federal stream of welfare money to states, giving instead a fixed amount - $16.5 billion a year nationally - and significant spending freedom. When people were leaving the rolls, less of that money went for cash assistance, and virtually all states shifted much of their grants to other help for poor people.
Now that welfare rolls are surging again, "the flaw is the states did not save enough money," said Ron Haskins, a Brookings Institution senior scholar who worked as a welfare adviser in the Bush White House and in Congress.