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A total of 1.61 million people were receiving welfare benefits nationwide as of December, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry said Tuesday, up about 53,000 from a year earlier as the economy continued to weaken.

The number of recipients has been on the increase since fiscal 1995 after the downfall of the asset-inflated bubble economy in the early 1990s. The latest figure is at a level not seen since fiscal 1964, when the average number of recipients per month topped 1.6 million.

The figure for December was pushed up by the addition of nonregular and laid-off workers joining the welfare program starting in autumn.

Economic and employment conditions have continued to deteriorate this year, stirring concerns that recipients will further increase.

In fiscal 2007, the monthly average number of welfare recipients stood at around 1.54 million.

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