Alaska's welfare caseload is down 34 percent -- the lowest level since 1990, according to Gov. Tony Knowles.
Knowles pointed to a reduction of $116 million in welfare payments over the past five fiscal years during the dedication of an Anchorage Job Center on Thursday. That job center had been a welfare office.
Knowles attributed the decline in payments to the state's economic good health and to an unemployment rate in Alaska below 8 percent for seven years running.
Federal and state laws implemented in 1997 made fundamental changes to welfare programs that had been in place for decades and initiated a thrust to get families on welfare to work. That thrust was backed by state-provided services to help recipients obtain or keep jobs and to find better jobs than they currently have.
The 1997 reforms include the imposition of a five-year lifetime limit on benefits; a requirement that most recipients be in a work activity within two years; a reduction of benefits to two-parent families during the summer and to families with low housing costs; and penalties for recipients who quit or refuse to take a job.
Despite the fiscal improvement in welfare expenditures, Knowles cautioned that the five-year limit ``means tough moments await some Alaska families. We still need to move thousands more people into the work force over the next two years.''
During fiscal year 1997, the state gave assistance to some 12,000 families, said Chris Ashenbrenner, deputy director of the Division of Public Assistance. Today that number is about 8,300, with another 400 families receiving help through Tanana Chiefs Conference programs out of Fairbanks, she said.
Preliminary projections are that in the first year beyond the 2002 deadline, about 800 families will be receiving direct benefits, Ashenbrenner said.
The deadline applies to ``non-exempt'' families. Those exempted include adults with disabilities; families with disabled children; families afflicted with domestic violence; and other, ``true hardships,'' she said.
``And there will still be the food stamp program, health benefits, rent assistance and general assistance programs -- both state and Native,'' Ashenbrenner said.
``Most families don't want to be on welfare,'' she said. ``Of the people we've had on the rolls since July 1997, 87 percent are working or in some sort of training.''