"It's about punishing the poor for needing assistance by adding another hurdle for welfare," said Rochelle Jackson, public policy advocate for Just Harvest, an anti-poverty group in Pittsburgh.
State officials disagree, saying the new rules are meant to encourage people to find work and to avoid getting on welfare in the first place.
"Our view is that a job is always better than being on welfare," Anne Bale, a DPW spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail on Friday.
Bale said that in July alone, as many as six out of 10 applicants who were denied welfare were turned away because they had found work and no longer needed welfare.
The aid they were seeking is known as TANF - federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. A typical payout is $314 a month for a low-income mother and child.
Advocates for the poor were skeptical of Bale's statement, saying they had seen no data to demonstrate that so many poor people were finding jobs in recent months. "It suggests the job market has really improved, and it hasn't," said Peter Zurflieh, staff attorney at the Community Justice Project in Harrisburg.
According to the state's data, the spike in welfare denials peaked at 81 percent in February after a decades-long norm ranging from 50 percent to 60 percent. The numbers began to climb in the summer of 2012, when Gary Alexander, then the Corbett administration's welfare secretary, implemented the pre-approval work search requirement.
In other states where a similar rule is in place, there has been "a sharp decline in TANF participation," said Timothy Casey, senior staff attorney with Legal Momentum, a New York-based advocacy organization for women.
One poverty expert says recent adoption of the rule by Pennsylvania and other states - including Kansas and South Carolina, but not New Jersey - reflects states' budget woes, as well as what she calls "political and popular hostility" to welfare.
"It's in the states' best interest to make it hard for people to be approved," said sociologist Judith Levine of Temple University.
There is a subtle but important distinction between traditional welfare rules and pre-approval work search.
Under long-standing rules, a welfare applicant has to undergo a complex process in which needs are assessed by caseworkers, who then devise a plan to help the applicant find or train for work, said Liz Schott, a TANF expert with the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based nonprofit that studies poverty programs.
The applicant is then given help with child care and transportation, as well as job-searching skills, while receiving benefits, Schott said.
The rule Pennsylvania adopted in 2012 requires that before anything else happens, a person seeking welfare must apply for three jobs and document that search on a form, all without the caseworker plan, or child care and transportation help - before getting any benefits.
Schott said a mother first asking for welfare is often in dire straits. "You need to stabilize the family first so the woman can then participate in work," she said.
Many poor people don't have cars, making it harder to get to potential job sites, and have trouble leaving children somewhere safe.
Advocates also say the paperwork required to prove a work search stalls an already sluggish bureaucratic process and gives overloaded caseworkers one more chore - which, in turn, delays people from receiving welfare in a timely fashion.
Richard Weishaupt, a lawyer with Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, said many applicants aren't aware of the 2012 rule and fail to adhere to it, or are befuddled by its requirements and wind up not getting TANF benefits.
The new rule puzzles advocates. TANF rules already mandated that a person receiving benefits must have a job, be part of an education program, or be actively seeking work.
"It's pointless to require an up-front job search when a work search is already mandatory," Jackson said. The change only makes sense as an obstacle thrown in the path of a low-income person needing welfare, she said.
Bale disagreed: "The department strives to find every opportunity we can to provide our clients with the tools they need to become self-sufficient."
In Pennsylvania, 196,795 people - mostly children - were on TANF as of July. That number is down from 536,863 in 1996, when welfare was changed by President Bill Clinton from an entitlement program to a work program funded by federal block grants, administered by states.
Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or firstname.lastname@example.org