HARRISBURG -- The vast majority of applicants for welfare benefits in Pennsylvania are rejected every month, data from the state show, and some blame a 2012 change in state law for sharply increasing the rate at which people are rejected from the program.
About 75 percent or more applicants for cash assistance are turned down every month -- leaving needy families without aid, advocates say.
The change? Beginning in July 2012, state law required applicants to apply to at least three jobs a week -- including while their application for assistance is still pending, which can be several weeks. Previously, an applicant would be required to fulfill the program's work requirement after being approved for assistance, rather than prior to approval.
The rate of rejections has steadily climbed since; prior to July 2012, monthly rejection rates for assistance applicants were consistently in the low 60 percent range.
The state Department of Public Welfare says it doesn't have enough data to track if that policy change caused higher rejection rates.
"I don't think we have the data yet to fully be able to say if that is the reason," said Tamila Lay, director of the agency's division of employment and training.
Advocates for clients say county assistance offices across the state are not properly informing applicants of this requirement early in the application process, but instead weeks after an application is submitted and aren't taking into account barriers those in need of assistance often face, such as a lack of transportation or childcare.
"It makes me wonder, what is happening to the 16,000 people that are walking away from the office and not getting anything. And DPW should be [wondering] as well," said Rochelle Jackson, public policy advocate from Just Harvest, an anti-hunger group in Pittsburgh, looking over statistics from November that show about 16,000 Pennsylvanians were rejected for welfare assistance -- 75.3 percent of all the applicants in that month.
Department officials say applicants are informed about the job search either when they fill out a form online or through paperwork mailed to them telling them what they need to bring to an in-person interview.
"Hopefully it's not so onerous that it's keeping anyone from getting the assistance they need," Ms. Lay said.
However, Ms. Lay said the department is working to have a new form by July that more clearly explains the requirement and states that applicants can be exempt for certain reasons, such as mental or physical health problems or homelessness.
The rejection rate for welfare applicants is far higher than for applicants to other assistance programs, such as Medicaid and food stamps, data from the state shows.
For Medicaid, 41 to 49 percent of applicants are rejected monthly and between 35 and 40 percent of food stamp applicants are turned down every month.
"We're continuing to be concerned about it," said Richard Weishaupt, a senior attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, who has been in contact with the department over the issue. "And we continue to ask [DPW] to collect more data to drill down and find out why the [rejection] rate is so high."
The department doesn't track if people are rejected due to not completing the work search during the application period, Ms. Lay said, though it hopes to have a code to be able to track that soon in the department's data.
Liz Schott, a researcher on welfare issues, has noticed the trend in Pennsylvania, she said.
"The result of the way it's being implemented is having the effect of excluding people," said Ms. Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Due to differences in how states keep track of data and differences in programs from state to state, comparison of rejection rates across states are difficult, she said, though clear trends -- such as this one in Pennsylvania -- can often be seen within one state's data.
The number of Pennsylvanians receiving welfare assistance -- officially known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) -- has declined in recent years, though numbers increased slightly during the recession. Welfare rolls have decreased fairly steadily since July 2012, when 214,387 people were enrolled in the program. As of February, the most recent figures available, 188,015 Pennsylvanians were receiving the assistance statewide.
Ms. Lay said the decrease could be due to an improving economy.
The state's unemployment rate was 6.2 percent in February, a decrease from 8.1 percent in July 2012.
States have figured out that by putting requirements up front, they can screen out potential assistance recipients, said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, an expert in state welfare policies at Washington, D.C., think tank CLASP.
"It's been increasingly common," she said.
How the requirement is conveyed to clients is critical, she said. If people apply online, how are they notified? Are they informed if they might be exempt from the requirement?
"I'd be interested if they have any idea if people are getting jobs because of this," she said.
If people applying for assistance could easily obtain jobs, they probably wouldn't be applying for help in the first place, said Laura Handel Schwartz, an attorney at the medical-legal partnership between Widener Law School and Crozer-Keystone Healthy Start, which serves low-income areas of Delaware County.
Ms. Schwartz said she is bothered by the presumption that she believes is the basis for the policy -- that applicants haven't already tried to look for work or don't want to.
"TANF is the last rung on the safety ladder," she said, and people turning to the program are often in crisis.
The block grant structure of state assistance -- states receive a lump sum from the federal government, which can be used for a broad range of other programs that includes child care subsidies, gives states many incentives to keep their caseloads down, Ms. Schott said.
"Any money they don't spend on a benefit, they can spend on other things," she said.
Pennsylvania's federal assistance block grant is $719 million annually.
The governor's proposed budget for 2014-15 includes $225 million for child care services, $271 million for cash assistance and $136 million for employment and training, with remaining funds being utilized for other human services (primarily child welfare), county assistance office caseworkers and other administrative overhead, according to the department.
Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.