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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 6, 2003

No jobs, no welfare: Some of us don't count

Depending on your politics, you could use numbers from August's employment figures, released yesterday, either to express encouragement or alarm.

The economy lost another 93,000 jobs last month, which is adding up to a potential obstacle to the re-election of President Bush. Since he took office, the national economy has lost more than 3 million jobs in the private sector, inspiring comparison to President Herbert Hoover's performance in the early days of the Great Depression.

The White House chose to emphasize the nation's unemployment rate, which dipped to 6.1 percent, down from 6.2 percent in July. From Bush's perspective, however, that statistic doesn't invite very close inspection. The reason the unemployment rate went down even as the number of jobs also went down is that thousands of people simply disappeared from the Labor Department's calculations: People who have quit trying to find work are not counted.

A day earlier, the government released another telling statistic: The Health and Human Services Department reported that the number of individuals on welfare had dropped by more than 4 percent between March 2002 and March 2003, to about 5 million people.

That may be seen as good news to state governments battling rising costs amid falling tax revenues. But again, a closer look at these figures is not likely to increase your optimism. After all, the number of jobs was rapidly decreasing during this period, which means that large numbers of those leaving welfare were also not working.

The number of Hawai'i families during the same period dropped even faster — by 12 percent, from 11,055 to 9,690, according to DHHS. Some of them found jobs, and to that extent you might say welfare reform, which occurred in 1996 during the Clinton administration, was a roaring success.

But a major reason for the reduction in those on welfare appears to be the five-year limit on welfare assistance, a central feature of welfare reform. The state DHHS says 1,031 families reached their five-year limit during the same period.

What happens to those who leave welfare but don't find work? There isn't enough hard data to make a blanket statement, but it wouldn't hurt to look at some of those sleeping in our parks and on our beaches; at those putting unprecedented pressure on the Foodbank and the Institute for Human Services.

But to an extent that should make us all uncomfortable, when people reach the end of their rope, for work or for welfare, they no longer count.