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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington Welfare Rolls Hit Record Low

The number of families on cash assistance in Washington has hit an all-time low. This follows a spike in welfare enrollment less than three years ago.

Republicans in the Washington Senate say the downward trend is a sign reform efforts have worked. But advocates for poor families disagree.

Enrollment in Washington’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF program experienced a recessionary peak in January of 2011 at 70,000. Now nearly three years later, enrollment has dropped by 30,000 to a record low.

What happened in between? Many changes to the program including: strict enforcement of a five-year cap on welfare benefits.

Senate Budget Chair Andy Hill, a Republican, says the smaller caseload is evidence of a more efficient state government. But Robin Zukoski with Columbia Legal Services says just because the numbers are down doesn’t mean families have moved from welfare to work.

“The drop in the TANF caseload is explained by changes in program policies that cut people off," she says, "Not by success.”

Senator Hill, the budget chair, emphasizes the drop in welfare cases will save Washington more than $500 million through the current two-year budget.