"Sure the reduction may look good, but numbers don't tell us about poverty. There may have been a 41 percent drop in caseload but there hasn't been a 41 percent drop in poverty," says Parker, program director for the Higgins Avenue Community Resource Connection. "Like everyone else, I'd like to know where people are going."
State officials have called Montana's welfare reform an unmitigated success. Gov. Marc Racicot says the two-year old program, Families Achieving Independence in Montana (FAIM) is an "overwhelming success." But that achievement, according to the state's fledgling tracking system, has only 59 percent of former welfare recipients finding jobs. As for the other 41 percent, well, no one really knows.
As of last Friday, 4,603 of the state's 11,238 cases had left the system-no one disagrees that this is a substantial number. But until now, no one could be certain what that meant. According to statistics generated by Hank Hudson, head of the state's Child and Family Services, it appears that nearly 1,900 Montanans and their families have slipped through the cracks.
And critics of welfare reform are concerned even for those who have found employment. Parker and others question what people are earning in their new jobs. Some believe that most former recipients are simply not making a livable wage and will, in some form or another, cycle back onto the system down the road. FAIM's intention is to pull people out of poverty by putting them to work, but in a state that was recently deemed the worst in terms of annual pay, many question whether it's a realistic goal.
As FAIM enters its second phase on May 1, during which recipients will be required to perform community service in exchange for cash benefits, there are already indications that employment is just not available. Too many former welfare recipients are not finding work, but instead are simply pushed off onto charitable organizations, straining other community resources.
In addition, welfare experts say those who have gone off public aid were the most employable to begin with; those who remain will have a much more difficult time finding work. As the clock continues to count down on welfare recipients' time limits-in three years, many will be forced off for good-the future looks dim. Their future may be even darker if Montana legislators decide the state no longer needs the federal portion of welfare funding-something that was proposed at the end of the last session.
The pronouncements of success once begged the question, where have all the welfare people gone? The question now is, where are all the welfare people going?
Mike Billings and his staff of three spend their days, and some nights, swimming in numbers. Billings is the administrator of the operations and technology division of Montana's Department of Health and Human Services, and nearly every speck of data the state has released about FAIM was generated by his fingertips.
He speaks quickly, patiently explaining his means and methods to the statistical neophyte. He's a cruncher, a figure junkie who is as interested in what's happening to the welfare rolls as anyone else in the state.
His work offers a rare, if incomplete, opportunity to glimpse at lives affected by the reform.
It was his department's report last February that prompted the governor's praise. But Billings just updated the numbers again last week and says that the trends state officials praised two months ago have continued.
According to the newest numbers, 6,635 recipients were receiving cash assistance at the end of March, down 41 percent from when the reforms began two years ago. Of the total closures, 59 percent had actual employment earnings during the period.
But neither Billings nor anyone else has any way of knowing exactly where the other 41 percent went. His department is currently trying to develop a system using food stamp and child care data to trace the footsteps of those who have walked or been pushed away from the system, but it's a slow process. There is also no way to determine what percentage of those who found employment still living under the poverty line.
"We really don't know where or if the other 41 percent were employed," he says. "Some of them may have held jobs that just weren't reported to the state through unemployment insurance."
Former recipients who did find work of some kind, Billings says, earned $60.9 million. So far, because of the drop in caseload, the state has saved $18.3 million in cash assistance payments.
Billings says he is optimistic about the program when he looks at the numbers but admits there is a considerable amount of work he and his staff must do in order to get a true assessment.
"Our effort now is to get a fair profile of these people. We need to see where people are and whether people are falling through the net," he says.
Even without an accurate tracking system, Montana Food Bank Network coordinator Peggy Grimes says she is already seeing some of the social safety net's fabric beginning to fray.
"From '95 to '97 we saw a steady increase in use across the board of about 23 percent," Grimes says. "My opinion is that the increases we've seen in the past few years are due to FAIM."
Her network serves all 56 counties, and she says few of those food banks did not report increases. More than ever before, she says, the shelves across Montana are bare. These days, she says, clients are reporting they are under-employed rather than unemployed, and that they have begun using the banks as grocery stores rather than as a last resort.
"We're just now seeing how welfare reform is impacting people and I'm very concerned about the future. A lot of the people now may not recognize they are coming to us because of FAIM," Grimes says. "(FAIM) is going to put a real strain on the system and we're going to see some people fail and fall through the cracks."
Grimes says the bank is so strained that she will, for the first time, be asking for the state's assistance in filling the shelves-the network will be asking for more than $300,000.
Missoula's Food Bank director Bill Carey says that he has not seen a substantial increase that can be attributed to FAIM. But Carey, a Montana legislator, adds that in terms of providing resources for the poor, Missoula is probably the best off of all the counties in the state.
"Other places are probably not doing as well. How long that will last is another story... will we have the resources to handle it a year from now," he says.
Carey says he supported the FAIM legislation and adds that its success depends on whether the state will continue to fund it adequately. Any more cuts, he says, could threaten the entire program. And with some state legislators threatening to turn down $44 million in federal money-nearly three-quarters of the welfare budget-such cuts are within the realm of possibility.
"If the legislature decided to reject the federal funding it would be bad, real bad," says Carey, who is now running for Missoula County Commissioner.
While Carey says he doesn't know how seriously his colleagues are about refusing the money, the legislature took it seriously enough last session to ask the Child and Family Division to draft a report describing what the state program could look like without the feds' assistance.
"That was probably one of the most bizarre experiences I've ever had in the legislature," Carey says. "It's clearly preposterous."
In a report released last month, the division came up with two possible scenarios:
One would reduce child care by $5 million, slash at FAIM's staff, and retroactively apply a two-year limit to cash assistance. It would set a maximum $289 monthly benefit package regardless of family size.
The second is almost identical to the first except that it would eliminate tribal assistance entirely, sending Montana's Indians directly to the federal government for assistance. In that case, the monthly benefit package would be increased to $366 per month.Both scenarios have local social service providers seriously worried.
"If that ever happened we would be in crisis mode. I hate to even think about that," says Eric Taylor, director of social services for the Missoula chapter of the Salvation Army. "We're seeing social services getting cut and we're seeing new jails being built. They're building places to take care of those who can't take care of themselves."
Taylor says the number of families who are coming to the Salvation Army for help has increased substantially in the past several years-something he attributes to FAIM
"People are already stressed out," he says. "People go to friends and family members and what I see is that they're already starting to tap those resources out too."
When Donetta Klein looks into the future, she sees a specter that few people are talking about.
"This is a healthy economy," she says. "If we see a recession and caseloads spike... the money would not be available."
Klein is the co-director of the Coping With Block Grants program at Women's Opportunity & Resource Development, Inc. (WORD), an organization that helps train and find employment for welfare recipients. States across the country are getting used to the money they've saved under welfare reform, she says, and often times are putting the savings into non-welfare funds. When the economy goes bad, she says, welfare coffers will be dry.
"When I look down the road, yeah, I'm concerned. We may not have the money," she says. "The destruction of the safety net is a real problem. Once people have used up their time we're going to see families even more destitute than they are now."
Montana's version of welfare reform was in place seven months before President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Act of 1996. The Big Sky Country went easier on its poor citizens, with a series of incentives and goals designed to ease the welfare population gradually into the job market. There was no time limit on benefits.
The feds, by contrast, put a five-year lifetime limit on benefits. In three years, for many, that time will be up. And while Montana was given leave to diverge from the federal reforms in a couple ways, there was no negotiating on time limits.
Like many others, Klein worries that the 1,900 families who slipped through the cracks over the last two years are a harbinger of things to come when the time limits kick in.
Recipients often use welfare as a form of unemployment insurance, "income packaging" she calls it, where they cycle between low income jobs and welfare to survive. When the clocks run out for some of these people, she says, she does not know how they will get by.
Heather Boyer could easily be one of those people. The 28-year-old single mother has three children. The oldest is 7, the youngest is 16 months. She is a welfare recipient and tries not to look too far into the future.
A Missoula native, Boyer moved back home several years ago after divorcing her husband in Kentucky. She says she has yet to see a child support payment from her ex, and if that was coming in she wouldn't need any help at all.
Boyer says she was almost making enough money at a part-time job to take herself off welfare just after she had her youngest child. But after the minimum wage was raised, she suddenly made too much to qualify for child care and was forced to quit so her daughter's day care would be paid for.
Under the old system, she says, 30 hours a week of child care was paid for each of her sons; she had to fight to get 24 hours for her youngest child.
She just completed a bookkeeping course at the Willard Adult Learning Center and is working 20 hours a week at WORD doing secretarial work. It's not what she wants to be doing right now, she wants a full time job and she wants to be on her own.
"But no one gives you a full time job here anymore. They're pushing people out, but where are the jobs?" she says. "I thought about moving away but I don't know what I'd do."
Boyer estimates that her time on the first half of the program will be exhausted sometime in December but she's hoping her job at WORD will eventually become full time. But, she says, the clock is ticking.
"I just want to be done with it and have them out of my business. I don't want to deal with any of this, but you get to a point where you have to swallow your pride to have any at all," she says in an interview in her tidy, book-filled subsidized apartment on Missoula's Northside. "It's hard to talk about this, it's embarrassing."
Raquel Castell-anos, co-director for Working for Equality and Economic Liber-ation, a Missoula-based support group for welfare recipients, says that FAIM is based on a flawed notion that there are enough jobs out there for people who will be forced off down the road.
"We're pushing people off the roll but we simply don't have enough jobs in this state to provide people a way to survive. And we aren't going to just see this down the road, it's happening right now," Castellanos says. "My concern is that the people who are off are in low wage jobs... that keep them locked into poverty."
On that point Carole Graham, Missoula County's health and human services director, agrees with Castellanos.
"I think that some areas of FAIM are lacking and we're lucky in the sense that the economy is healthy," says Graham. "We're great at getting people the first job but what about the third and fourth jobs... We owe it to folks to make a livable wage."
Graham has been praised by activists and recipients alike for meeting the needs of those affected by the changes. Twenty-four months, ago Missoula had 1,200 people on the welfare rolls; currently it averages 645, and Graham doesn't believe the drop has bottomed out just yet. But, she says, if the economy changes or there are more cutbacks, Missoula, along with the rest of the state, could suffer greatly.
"A lot of [those who have been cut] are working but they're still struggling," she says. "As far as those who are lost, or who give up and leave, I don't know. We're getting down to the more difficult cases with more reasons why they can't work, and we'll see how that goes."
John McGuigan, Linda Corneluis and Boni Cooper are more than willing to talk about the positives and the negatives of FAIM for them. Each of their clocks for at least the first half of the program is due to run out by the end of the summer. They all spoke after a job skills course at WORD.
"My time is up in July and my case worker wants to try to find me a job before then," says Cooper, single mother of three. "It's scary. If I can't find a job I don't know what I'm going to do. Community service I guess."
McGuigan, a single father, entered the welfare system after a heart attack in 1993. His time is up in June when his daughter graduates and he is no longer eligible for cash assistance.
"All these doors that were open are soon going to be closed. It's been a great program and I've learned a lot about getting a job, but it seems like there's no where to go now," he says.
Corneluis' time for cash assistance is up next month, and she says the skills she has learned in job training classes make her marketable, but she is beginning to wonder where the market is.
"I have sent my resume out as far as it will go and I'm just waiting to hear back. Community service is going to hurt a little bit because now I have to do 20 hours in addition to finding a job," she says.
Robert Deaton, a University of Montana professor of social work, sums up most people's concerns about FAIM and the future of those now on welfare. The system is starting to stretch already and he does not like what he sees on the horizon.
"We'll dink along with this until the next disaster hits. What's going to wreck the ship is the next wave of people who have to be placed in jobs," he says. "And if we have any kind of recession it's going to be devastating."
Photos by Jeff Powers
Heather Boyer says a combination of the state's welfare reforms and an increase in minimum wage pushed her and her children further from self-sufficiency.
Garden City Harvest, which donates much of the produce it grows to hungry people in Missoula, is one of the many nonprofits straining to catch welfare recipients who fall through the state's social service safety net.