New welfare caseload statistics show the number of families receiving temporary assistance has continued a slow decline, the Bush administration reported Wednesday.

Between September 2000 and March 2001, the number of families dropped 3 percent -- from about 2.2 million to 2.1 million. During that same period the number of individual recipients declined 4.4 percent, from more than 5.7 million to about 5.4 million, according to statistics from the Department of Health and Human Services.

HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson said the numbers are part of a downward trend.

"While the caseload numbers are encouraging, the real news is that welfare reform is moving more people into work so that they can support themselves and their families," Thompson said. "Welfare reform has helped an unprecedented number of people on welfare to become self-supporting."

Nationally, the welfare rolls peaked in 1994 at nearly 14.3 million people, mostly single women and their children. Pushed by tough new rules and aided by the strongest economy in a generation, the number of people on welfare had fallen by nearly 60 percent to fewer than 5.8 million people by September 2000.

But the decline has slowed dramatically.

Between June and September of 2000, 11 states saw their welfare rolls increase by more than 3 percent, while 10 saw drops of more than 3 percent.

Thompson also announced Wednesday that his department will hold national forums with state leaders and welfare recipients in preparation for next year's congressional reauthorization of the program.

The sessions will start on Sept. 24 in Atlanta. Other sessions will be scheduled for this fall in Chicago, Dallas, New York and San Francisco.