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Demand for social services on the rise locally, regionally

ELIZABETHTOWN - President Barack Obama was ringing the alarm bells earlier this week after some cities saw their unemployment rates soar to record highs.

Those numbers, coupled with the spiraling economic recession, have prompted a steady increase in the demand for social services - unemployment and heating assistance, for example. If there's even a shred of truth to President Obama's prediction that things will get worse before they get better, many social service deparments are likely to feel the pressure. In Essex County, it is still unclear how the recession is affecting the Department of Social Services, but according to commissioner John O'Neill, his office is seeing an increase in applications for assistance.

"I'm not sure to what extent this 'recession' is impacting our region yet," said O'Neill. "We are seeing significant increases in applications for temporary assistance - welfare, Medicaid and food stamps. Definitely more than the seasonal increases we get each year."

As far as actual numbers are concerned, O'Neill noted that his department has seen at least a five percent increase in caseloads in each of the major areas of assistance. Welfare requests increased 23 percent, food stamps are up 13, medicaid is up six, and HEAP request went up 13 percent.

"We don't and can't turn away anyone who is eligible," O'Neill added. "But most - not all - who apply are eligible."

In Warren County, social services officials have reported staffing shortages, causing a crisis of sorts as employee caseloads increase rapidly. O'Neill noted that staff size in Essex County is adequate for the number of cases his office is processing. He does, however, anticipate a busy spring.

O'Neill explained that when winter winds down, demand for heating and food assistance generally declines - but this year might be different.

"We are used to seasonal fluctuations in applicants," said O'Neill. "However, it doesn't seem likely that we will see much of a post-winter drop in anything but HEAP. There's really no indication that everything else won't continue upward depending on the regional employment outlook."

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