WASHINGTON -- Three years after the recession officially ended, most of the nation's safety-net programs finally are serving fewer people, an analysis of government data shows.
The downward trend that started with unemployment insurance in 2010 and welfare benefits in 2011 has reached food stamps, which have seen a two-month dip - the first time that's happened under President Obama.
Only Medicaid, the federal-state health care program for the poor, remains at its peak, due to the slow recovery, the erosion of employer-sponsored insurance and federal rules that prohibit states from slashing eligibility. Still, even Medicaid has started to level off in some states.
The trend could mean a slight dip in poverty, which rose in 2009-10, though Census data for this year won't be available until 2013. The three-year lag between the recession ending and a reduction in government aid, on the other hand, shows how hard the post-recession period has been on low-income families, including people with part-time or low-wage jobs.
"The recession may be over, but who knew it?" says Ron Haskins, an expert on anti-poverty programs at the Brookings Institution and an author of the 1996 welfare overhaul. "Unemployment is still extremely high. So I think there's good reason why these programs are so high."
In most cases, the levels are starting to wane:
•States are phasing out extended jobless benefits that in some cases enabled people to collect for 99 weeks. The number of people receiving benefits in April was the lowest since December 2008.
•Tough welfare rules established when the program was overhauled in 1997, such as sanctions and time limits, made welfare less responsive to this recession than others. Caseloads grew 20% from the middle of 2008 to the end of 2010 but have declined 5% since then.
•The food stamp program grew by 47% over three years, prompting Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich to label Obama the "food stamp president." By February, the latest month available, it had dropped slightly.
•Medicaid has yet to decline in key states such as Florida, Texas and New York, but it's beginning to level off. The latest national data, for 2010, showed a slower increase than in 2009; a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey showed an even slower rise through September 2011.
The falling caseloads are beginning to reduce federal spending, but not by much. Spending on jobless benefits, which rose from $43 billion in 2008 to $157 billion in 2009, has dipped to about $105 billion. Welfare spending is back to its pre-recession, $25 billion level. Food stamp spending doubled in four years to $106 billion and has yet to abate. Medicaid costs the federal government more than all the others combined - an estimated $255 billion.
House Republicans this month approved about $60 billion in cuts over 10 years to food stamps and Medicaid, to avoid steep Pentagon cuts. But it has no chance of becoming law.