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Welfare caseloads in Erie County have slumped to their lowest level in two decades. Unfortunately, the local economy, better now but scarcely bustling, has not been strong enough to shrink the welfare rolls even further.

Given the fact that there was no help from a local economic boom, the shrinking welfare numbers are a testimonial to federal welfare reform and aggressive county efforts to move people from welfare to work and to reduce fraud. Erie County has had to fight for every gain it won.

The effort has paid off, to the benefit of all county taxpayers. Consider this:

Caseloads averaged 21,579 in 1979 and 22,502 in 1980. But they were starting to rise that year. The actual November 1980 caseload rose to 23,644.

Caseloads peaked at 38,380 in 1984.

For the first 11 months of last year, caseloads averaged 23,028. Last November, only 21,950 people depended on welfare.

Deborah Merrifield, Erie County commissioner of social services, credits welfare reforms, which emphasize recipients finding jobs, and anti-fraud efforts like those that recorded 168 convictions and recovered $1.1 million last year as important contributors to the decline.

Attacking welfare fraud not only punishes the guilty, it also deters others and bolsters public confidence in local welfare programs.

Under the federal carrot-and-stick reforms as administered here, Merrifield says that 40 percent of all welfare applicants who attend an initial two-week orientation and training period have found jobs. Others may need more training -- to improve their English, for example -- or be assigned to workfare, where people earn their checks by performing community services like shoveling snow at bus stops.

The critical test ahead is to coordinate a variety of job-training programs and target them so that they teach precisely the skills required by local employers, as in the expanding computer call centers. Given a satisfactory economy, this will better match job vacancies with the trained applicants to fill them.

That will cut costs to the taxpayers and enhance the lives of recipients. When you talk about a win-win situation, that's about as good as it gets.

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