WASHINGTON — The welfare state is bigger than ever despite a decade of policies designed to wean poor people from public aid.
The number of families receiving cash benefits from welfare has plummeted since the government imposed time limits on the payments a decade ago. But other programs for the poor, including Medicaid, food stamps and disability benefits, are bursting with new enrollees.
The result, according to an Associated Press analysis: Nearly one in six people rely on some form of public assistance, a larger share than at any time since the government started measuring two decades ago.
Critics of the welfare overhaul say the numbers offer fresh evidence that few former recipients have become self-sufficient, even though millions have moved from welfare to work.
“If the goal of welfare reform was to get people off the welfare rolls, bravo,” said Vivyan Adair, a former welfare recipient who is now an assistant professor of women’s studies at Hamilton College in upstate New York. “If the goal was to reduce poverty and give people economic and job stability, it was not a success.”
Proponents of the changes in welfare say programs that once discouraged work now offer support to people in low-paying jobs. They point to expanded eligibility rules for food stamps and Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor that enable people to keep getting benefits even after they start working.
In 2005, about 5.1 million people received monthly welfare payments from TANF and similar state programs, a 60 percent drop from a decade before.
But other government programs grew, offsetting the declines.
About 44 million people — nearly one in six in the country — relied on government services for the poor in 2003, according to the most recent statistics compiled by the Census Bureau. That compares with about 39 million in 1996.
Also, the number of people getting government aid continues to increase, according to more recent enrollment figures from individual programs.
Medicaid rolls alone topped 45 million people in 2005, pushed up in part by rising health care costs and fewer employers offering benefits.