Money for Nothing 

Despite rampant poverty, millions of welfare funds go unspent

Advocates for Montana’s poorest families this week released the findings of a study revealing that nearly $28 million in federal funds designated for poverty reduction have not been spent by the state. This despite figures showing that poverty remains a persistent problem in Montana, where the average poverty rate climbed above 16 percent for 1998, with more than 22 percent of Montana’s children still living in poverty.

The report, released simultaneously by welfare advocates nationwide on the eve of a National Governors’ Association meeting this weekend in Washington, D.C., draws attention to the more than $7 billion of unspent TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) money allocated to the states for anti-poverty measures.

Currently, only 13 other states have more unused money than Montana. In fact, the $27.7 million in unspent funds represents 22 percent of all the federal welfare funds received by Montana since federal welfare reform was enacted in 1996. Currently, that money is considered “unobligated funds,” meaning that the Department of Public Health and Human Services has no specific plans for how to use it.

“There’s a systemic problem with the way that welfare is happening right now,” says Kate Kahan, director of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation (WEEL), a Missoula-based low-income advocacy group. “Even though the welfare rolls are down, we know that more and more people are going into poverty, and this report shows how all this money should be going into welfare programs to help people move out of poverty. Clearly, welfare is not an individual problem. It’s a systemic problem.”

As Montana’s low-income advocates repeatedly point out, reductions in the state’s welfare rolls have been a poor indicator of the success of welfare reform in achieving its stated goal; namely, moving families toward economic independence. They point to a host of other indicators that demonstrate how income inequality has grown worse in our state, from the escalation in the number food pantry visits, to the increasing difficulty poor families have to find housing, to the decrease in the number of children enrolled in the state’s Children Health Insurance Program (CHIP), to a 20 percent decline in food stamp participation since 1994.

“Enrollment is really low, especially if you look at the report for child care assistance,” says Derek Birnie, director of Montana People’s Action. “Only nine percent of the eligible families in Montana who could be accessing child care assistance are utilizing it.”

Birnie says the problems are twofold. For one, information about services available to low-income families is not getting out there, so people are unaware that they and their children are eligible for assistance. And even when people do know they’re eligible, many still will not access the programs because of past bad experiences with their local welfare office, or because of the stigma attached to receiving public aid.

Second, Birnie says that Montana has allocated very little money to address the persistent barriers to the system, such as past difficulties with welfare offices, the extensive application process, difficulties with transportation, and so on.

“What we’ve also heard from caseworkers themselves in the office is a level of frustration about not having all the information they need about the programs to be able to articulate them to the recipients,” adds Birnie. “We had a member go into the Office of Public Assistance to turn in a CHIP application a couple of weeks ago and the person behind the counter didn’t know what it was.”

Both Birnie and Kahan indicate that their offices have seen a significant rise in the number of “problem calls” dealing with landlord-tenant conflicts, utility service disconnections, loss of automobile insurance, and so on. Other advocates speak of a rise in problem gambling, as many poor citizens become more desperate for solutions to their financial woes.

Still, the solutions to such problems are well within reach, advocates say, since many of the programs and the funding are already in place. The key, they suggest, is better community outreach.

For example, CHIP, implemented just over a year ago, began as a pilot program with 10,000 available slots. Nevertheless, only about 3,000 children are currently enrolled, a number that has actually been declining. Birnie attributes the decline to the fact that recipients who wish to re-enroll must now go through the entire application process all over again, and fill out an application that runs 17 pages long.

Moreover, both Birnie and Kahan say that welfare agencies could do a better job of reaching the people most in need of assistance by conducting outreach through other avenues that welfare recipients feel more comfortable and naturally approaching.

“Actually, Missoula County has done a better job of that than many communities throughout the state,” says Birnie, pointing to county outreach efforts conducted through Partnership Health Care and the Indian Center, to name a few.

Finally, since welfare recipients are by law restricted to a maximum of 60 months of benefits in their lifetime, advocates suggest the state should stop the time clock for recipients engaged in job training or post-secondary education, as well as for families with other considerable barriers, such as domestic violence survivors and homeless families.

“The [state] prefers to say that we have decreased the welfare rolls, we have more people working than ever, our economy is booming,” says Montana People’s Action state chair Anita Anderson. “Yes, unemployment is down, yes welfare is down, and jobs are at an all-time high. We all have two or three of them.”

TANF is up for reauthorization in 2001.

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