A top state think tank Monday put a grim human toll on the financial crisis: As the state and national economies worsen, the number of families needing government help to survive is burgeoning.

According to a first-ever study released by the nonpartisan California Budget Project, state residents are turning to public assistance in dramatic numbers. With unemployment at a 14-year high, the number of food stamp recipients has quadrupled in the past year. Welfare rolls that shed more than 500 families a month in 2007 now serve 2,240 new families each month. And tens of thousands are turning to government-funded health care following job losses and a decline in employer-sponsored benefits.

Waiting in line Monday for a free holiday food basket in San Jose, Andrea and her small daughter seemed to epitomize the report's findings. Andrea, a 30-year-old injured military veteran whose unemployment benefits just ran out, left the Sacred Heart community service agency with a turkey, an odd assortment of canned goods and a tub of sour cream. It will have to last, she said. A job she had lined up at a community college fell through due to budget cuts and with a rise in prices, her food stamps don't stretch too far.

"I've given up on trying to eat every day," said Andrea, who asked that her last name not be used because she fled an abusive spouse. "I want to make sure what we have lasts for my daughter."

The newly released report called for legislators to prioritize families like Andrea's, as state legislators continue battling about a $41 billion budget shortfall.

Democrats and Republicans both propose social service cuts, but the extent of the cuts, and whether to raise taxes to offset them, has the Legislature paralyzed.

California Budget Project director Jean Ross, argues that now is precisely when public funds must flow into social programs — the "toughest economic climate that we have faced in the post-War era in this country." Her report calls for "carefully chosen" but unspecified tax increases.

"Every dollar that moves into low-income families moves immediately to local grocers, clothing stores and landlords," said Ross. "To cut back at a time like this is exactly the opposite of what we need to do in order to keep retail spending up."

At the Santa Clara County Social Service Agency's largest intake office, applications for a variety of safety net programs increased almost 40 percent in the last year. Not all applicants are deemed eligible, but in the food stamp and General Assistance programs, caseloads increased by as much as 15 percent.

Statewide, food stamp reliance increased by 13.8 percent between September 2007 and September 2008 — almost four times the increase seen in the prior year.

In the past year, almost 27,000 families joined the CalWORKS cash-assistance program, the first increase since 2004. Welfare applications are being filed at four times last year's rate.

And in recent months, more than 19,400 people signed up for food benefits with the Women, Infants, and Children Program. Many were "people who have never needed help before," said Laurie True, executive director of the nonprofit California WIC Association. "They are young families who have either been foreclosed upon, evicted, or who have lost their jobs."

In better economic times, WIC agencies conduct outreach, but those efforts are no longer needed. Auto-dialers that remind people of their appointments have been turned off. "If they don't come in, somebody will take their place," True said.

The growing reliance on aid is driven by California's unemployment rate, which hit 8.4 percent in November, affecting more than 1.6 million people.

For Andrea, cutting social services now seems absurd.

The lifelong San Jose resident was raised in foster care, and now her personal hardship threatens her ability to raise her own child. Her daughter, whom she describes as "a blonde, blue-eyed little Shirley Temple," suffers from a gastrointestinal disorder and wears splints on her legs.

"I've almost given my daughter up at a fire station at least four or five times since we've been homeless," Andrea said. "I'm waiting to go under."

Contact Karen de Sá at kdesa@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5781.