According to data from the city's Human Resources Administration (HRA), this June and July saw the first increases in the number of city residents receiving cash assistance over those in the same month of the previous year since late 2004 – breaking a streak of 54 straight months where the year-to-year number of people on the rolls declined.

While the year-to-year jumps for June and July are modest, at 1.4 and 1.6 percent respectively, they finally suggest some reflection of rising need in the welfare rolls. Both nationally and locally, analysts have examined why assistance has declined as the economy and unemployment rates have worsened.

“The trend in New York has been so significantly downward that any increase is noteworthy and it seems pretty apparent that it relates to the state of the economy,” said Don Friedman, managing attorney at the Empire Justice Center, a New York public-interest law firm. “What’s more significant is that the increase has been at such a small level.”

The year-over-year increases saw the number of cash assistance recipients rise by 4,777 from 341,329 in June 2008 to 346,106 in June 2009; and by 5,556 from 338,866 in July 2008 to 344,422 in July 2009.

Friedman says the increase over the past two months in New York City is comparable to the rise in welfare caseloads seen at the state level and in the country at large during the current recession.

HRA's tracking of the state's unemployment rate (9.3 percent in June) in relation to the cash assistance rate also shows the biggest divide in a decade, with more than 730,000 people officially unemployed, versus 346,106 people getting assistance. In June 2009, HRA spent more than $108 million on cash assistance, an increase of almost $7 million over June 2008.

With the trend reversing for just two months so far, the welfare agency itself sees little meaning in the change. "Over the past several months the cash assistance caseload has remained essentially flat, increasing slightly some months and decreasing others,” HRA Commissioner Robert Doar said in a statement on Monday. “While there have been some increased demands for service, we continue to see hiring in the entry level job market and our job placements remain in the same range as they were last year at this point. We are prepared to serve those who are eligible for benefits by working aggressively with them so they may quickly gain employment."

Maureen Lane, a co-director of the Welfare Reform Initiative at Hunter College’s Center for the Study of Family Policy, also questions how much the increases actually mean – but for a different reason. The lengthy and onerous welfare application process effectively keeps needy people out of the system, Lane maintains.

The increases are a more accurate reflection of "the reality of people's needs," she said, "but I think it’s a blip in that the application process in New York City is not connecting people to the benefits they really need in a coherent and effective way.”

- Nekoro Gomes