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Cash assistance cases still above pre-recession levels

Caseloads have dropped off significantly from their peak in early 2013, but won't fall below pre-recession levels until 2019.

SALEM — The number of Oregonians receiving federal cash assistance remains higher than it was at the start of the Great Recession, but state analysts expect the number to shrink to pre-recession levels by early 2019.

The number of people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, the federal cash assistance program for people experiencing poverty, to an extent reflects the state's uneven economic recovery.

As of June 2017, there were 18,624 TANF cases in Oregon, translating to 45,978 people, according to the Oregon Department of Human Services. Caseloads have dropped off significantly from their peak in early 2013.

The TANF program is "highly sensitive to the job market," according to a recent DHS report.

The report looked at caseloads for the program between January of 2008 and December 2016 in each of Oregon's 36 counties.

Families who earn less than 37 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for TANF. That's about $630 per month for a family of three, according to DHS.

While overall the state is experiencing a tight labor market, employment rates haven't recovered uniformly across the state — and neither have caseloads for social welfare programs like TANF and food stamps.

Multnomah County, for example, which has seen both rapid growth in employment and in in-migration, in December of 2016 had TANF caseloads that are actually 2 percent lower than they were in January of 2008.

By contrast, employment in Central Oregon's Crook County is 14.1 percent lower than it was in January 2008, and TANF caseloads are 18.6 percent higher.

And while employment is generally a solid indicator of what TANF caseloads will look like, there are also other factors at play.

For example, even though Southern Oregon's Jackson County saw a 7.5 percent growth in employment between 2008 and 2016, its TANF caseloads have increased by about 88 percent in that period.

Gregory Tooman, a regional and caseload forecaster for DHS, says that contractions in certain areas of the economy may not have made a dent in TANF caseloads because jobs in those sectors require specialized training, licenses or skills. People who receive cash assistance are more likely to be low-skilled, semi-skilled or unskilled workers.

In addition, some recipients of cash assistance may be working, but are doing so part-time or in very low-wage jobs.

The DHS report also points to Morrow County as an "extreme outlier." While the north central Oregon county has seen more high-tech jobs at new data centers and a 42 percent growth in employment, many of those jobs require specialized skills and have been occupied by people moving into the county.

It's also worth noting that with a relatively small population — just over 11,200 according to 2016 census estimates — a 42 percent leap in employment in Morrow County translates to relatively small real numbers. Same goes for the county's TANF caseloads, which jumped 56.4 percent between 2008 and 2016.

Generally, caseloads for programs like cash assistance are also "sticky" indicators that take a while to bounce back from bad economic times, says state economist Josh Lehner.

And other parts of the social safety net may be even slower to bounce back from pre-recession levels than cash assistance: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, colloquially referred to as food stamps, is available to more people because it has a higher income limit. People receiving SNAP are typically required to work as well.

It has also taken longer for Oregon's rural areas to recover compared to Portland and secondary metro areas like Bend and Corvallis.

While robust population growth in Portland and other areas of the state has driven demand for certain services, Oregon also mirrors a national trend: metropolitan areas with more diverse economies tend to recover from downturns more quickly.

And in Oregon, part of the delay when it comes to reducing welfare caseloads may also have something to do with a statewide dip in middle-wage job growth.

While high-wage jobs and low-wage jobs have reached pre-recession levels, jobs that fall in the middle of the income scale are growing more slowly.

That lagging growth isn't just the result of the contraction of the oft-discussed manufacturing sector and timber industry, but also in "pink collar" administrative and office jobs traditionally held by women, Lehner said.

Many of those jobs were made obsolete by technological advances and efficiencies, and saw a severe dip after the recession, especially in rural areas. The recession also led to cuts in public sector jobs, which typically take up a greater share of jobs in rural Oregon.

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