The news: In October, the national unemployment rate was the highest since 1994.

Behind the news: According to the Illinois Department of Human Services, 5,230 people applied for the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families in October, and 1,375 were accepted. Despite the faltering economy, the figures represent a slight drop from October 2007, when there were 5,244 applications and 1,467 approvals.

The overall number of families enrolled in TANF has also decreased, from 29,037 in October 2007 to 26,824 a year later.

Marva Arnold, director of the human services department’s division of human capital development, said there is a lag between an economic downturn and its effect on the TANF program because families don’t qualify for it until their unemployment insurance runs out.

But Arnold expects higher TANF caseloads if the economy does not recover.

“We’re only placing a third of the people in jobs than we were last year,” she said.

Wendy Pollack, director of the Women’s Law and Policy Project at the Sargent Shriver National Center for Poverty Law, said the program should be enrolling more families on its roll. “[TANF] is not reflecting what’s going on out there and the economic pain people are in and it’s a program that should,” she said.

The reason, Pollack said, is the bureaucratic red tape. The state should “be understanding that more and more people will need all the benefits they administer and being open to that and not discouraging people from applying,” she said.

But Arnold said that there are “no obstacles whatsoever to applying,” even though there is not a direct outreach program. She noted that, to be accepted for the program, the head of the household should be seeking employment throughout the application process. “To [get] the application [approved], they have to demonstrate a willingness to help themselves,” she said. “If you don’t, then they’re denied.”