Mary Nelson has overseen welfare benefits in Ramsey County since Ronald Reagan was president and the Soviet Union was our communist nemesis.

But one thing has remained constant over the decades: the size of Minnesota's welfare checks.

A single parent with one child received $437 a month in 1986 -- and still does today. Ditto for a parent with two children, who receives $532.

These stagnant numbers are coming under increased focus in the human-service community. Welfare spending is a target of state budget cuts, while the collapsing economy is increasing the number who need help.

"Most people don't have a clue that our welfare benefits have been frozen more than 20 years," Nelson said. "And it's not just government officials. You should see the faces of some of the people who come here and apply for benefits when they learn the size of the grant."

Meanwhile, a recent study shows that Minnesota's welfare benefits no longer are among the highest in the nation. Instead they rank 16th nationally, according to a survey by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington research group.

Alaska, which gives $923 a month to a single parent with two children, topped the list. Mississippi was at the bottom, offering $170 a month for a family that size.

To legislators such as Rep Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, the House minority leader who has led the charge to curb welfare spending and fraud, the frozen benefits and latest research are no reason to change course.

"What do we give out for housing [subsidies]?" Seifert asked. "What do we give out for medical assistance? What do we give out for child-care assistance? You need to look at the whole package."

But to human service leaders such as Nelson, some increase is in order.

"Nothing in the economy stands still," said Nelson. "We expect these families to go out and find a job, yet the cost of transportation goes up, the cost of housing goes up, the cost of a phone line goes up."

The size of Minnesota's welfare benefits may be of increasing interest as growing numbers of unemployed Minnesotans turn to public assistance. Welfare cases are up about 2,000 over the past year, to 37,100. That's about 101,000 Minnesota parents and children, state records show.

"It [welfare applications] tends to lag behind the rest of the economy," said Chuck Johnson, assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Human Services. "I've heard from counties that applications are really up. We expect things to start climbing right now."

On a recent afternoon at the Ramsey County Government Center, a steady stream of parents and children walked into the lobby of the public assistance office. The workers behind the counter said they're seeing a new group of applicants -- single parents who in stronger economies hold down full-time jobs -- in addition to the usual younger single mothers with kids.

Desire Vang was among the parents filling out public assistance applications. The mother of a 6-month-old son, she said she never had applied before but was grateful to get financial help while finishing her schooling. But even living with her grandmother, it would be tough to make ends meet, she said.

Vang said she couldn't imagine trying to live on her own with $437 a month in cash and $285 in food stamps, which is what a family of two receives.

"When they told me how much [welfare] people get, it was like, 'How can you live on that?"' said Vang of St. Paul.

"A one-bedroom apartment is at least $600," she said. "My baby goes through a can of Similac [infant formula] about every two or three days, and that costs $15. A box of 80 diapers is about $20."

To be sure, many welfare recipients are working at least part time to have some extra income. They also receive food stamps and medical assistance. And about 17 percent get a housing subsidy, according to the state.

Enough, or too little?

Depending on where you stand, that's either very generous or too little.

Seifert says Minnesota's welfare recipients have ample state support -- and not enough accountability. However, if welfare benefits had kept pace with inflation, families today would be receiving $841 for a family of two and $1,025 for a family of three.

Nobody is advocating for such a dramatic increase. But over the years, several bills in the Legislature have sought to increase the amount in Minnesota's welfare checks, Johnson said. The Department of Human Services has not advocated for an increase, he said, in part because it's struggling to keep pace with funding for the soaring cost of its medical assistance program and long-term care for the elderly.

This session, a half-dozen bills to curb welfare spending have been introduced. One would require welfare applicants moving to Minnesota from states with lower benefits to receive the same amount of money they would have received back home. Another would require welfare recipients living in subsidized housing to get $100 a month docked from their welfare checks, up from the current $50. Others would beef up welfare fraud investigations or require applicants to be fingerprinted or submit to drug tests.

Parents such as Vang aren't monitoring those debates. She left the welfare office with a stack of papers to fill out and thoughts for a family budget. And Nelson is continuing to keep tabs on how the economic downturn is affecting her public assistance programs.

Many once-middle-class families may not qualify for welfare now because of asset limits for items such as cars and other vehicles, including boats and snowmobiles, she said. But in these times, that could change.

Jean Hopfensperger • 651-298-1553