Nevada is in a deep economic slump, but business is booming at Nancy Ford's place.
In fact, these days her office is setting records and serving customers at a rate that's way ahead of expert projections.
All of which would be great news if only Ford weren't the administrator of the state Division of Welfare and Supportive Services. Among its many duties, the division distributes federal food stamps and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds to qualifying residents. The fact business is so good not only speaks to the depth of Nevada's economic woes, but it also complicates matters as Gov. Jim Gibbons goes looking for places to cut to balance the state's budget.
The effect of the economic slowdown and associated rise in unemployment to a 14-year-high, 6.2 percent, is illustrated in the increased TANF and food stamp disbursements. Ford says her department's temporary assistance caseload is 47 percent higher than projected during the last session of the Legislature. Food stamp use is 4.5 percent ahead of projections.
Thumbnail translation: Working class Nevada families are hurting at an increasing rate. With little relief from rising gasoline and food prices in sight, the welfare department's troubling economic indicators only figure to rise.
"We have a lot more stress on the system," Ford says. "All our caseloads are much higher.
"We're exceeding legislative projections across the board."
One area of concern to many Nevadans is the potential effect of illegal immigrants on the system. While there's an effect, Ford says, only the children of illegals qualify for TANF cash.
And many of those children are U.S. citizens.
State welfare insiders tell me they've suspected system abuse by illegals, but there's almost no recourse in a department that's busy just processing cases.
"We provide no benefits to undocumented aliens," Ford says. "In the TANF program, we do have child-only cases. If children are citizens, we provide a grant for the family on behalf of the children, but the parents are not included in the grant."
For Ford, the greater challenge comes in finding areas to cut where it will do the least damage. Much of state welfare's budget is based on a funding formula that's heavily reliant on federal dollars. For every $1 Nevada spends on its TANF program, the federal government adds $2.
It's a good deal for the state -- until you start looking for places to cut. Then the formula is inverse: For every $1 of state money that's trimmed, the department loses $3.
Like other areas of state government, Ford's department has already made its suggested 4.5 percent budget reduction. She adds that a list of other suggested cuts has also been drafted should it be necessary.
Ford acknowledges the stress on the department, but says she doesn't anticipate running out of emergency funds.
"We have no waiting list right now," she says. "We're continuing to serve whoever comes through the door. ... I think a lot of these families have low-paying jobs or have lost jobs and find it hard to make ends meet. We have several programs that can assist people in getting through the economic downturn."
More budget cuts not only will conjure Dickensian images of hitting the poor when they're down, but they'll do more harm than cuts in other areas.
While welfare caseloads aren't necessarily an accurate barometer of economic health, according to a study by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the country's prolonged economic slump has changed the norm. Increasing unemployment rates combined with rising fuel and food prices are sending families searching for relief across the country. Nevada is no exception.
"I believe we're really the safety net for families and people when the economy goes south," Ford says. "We're the ones who can really help people get through the hard times.
"I'm very concerned because there's no end in sight to what's happening in the economy at this point. One of the difficulties in my division is that the main place where I'm able to provide some savings is by cutting staff. But I'm in a growth industry. When the economy goes south, that puts more stress on the system."
These are hard times for Nevadans. Nancy Ford's office has the business to prove it.
John L. Smith's column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.