They were out in full force Saturday afternoon in Caras Park, pushing strollers, shouldering infant carriers and keeping a vigilant eye on the toddlers feeding hot dogs and finger paint to a pack of eager, drooling dogs. The occasion was the second annual Mama Jam, a Mother’s Day celebration and fundraiser sponsored by WEEL—Working for Equality and Economic Liberation—designed to raise public awareness of the ongoing plight of Montana’s low-income “working mothers,” a redundant term if ever there was one.
To refer to the constituents of WEEL as “welfare mothers” is also something of a misnomer since, as WEEL Director Kate Kahan points out, so few of the single mothers who skate the poverty line actually receive direct cash assistance anymore. Instead, what we’ve witnessed in the past four years since the enactment of welfare reform (officially known as “Families Achieving Independence in Montana” or FAIM) has been a steady move of people off the welfare rolls—more than a 60 percent drop since 1996—but no concomitant improvement in their overall economic well-being. If anything, low-income advocates say that the evaporation of social safety nets has raised more barriers to economic independence than ever before.
Statistics from private agencies that are struggling to close that income gap support this conclusion. According to Peggy Grimes of the Montana Food Bank Network, which supplies food to pantries, shelters and kitchens statewide, the amount of food they shipped annually increased from 971,350 pounds in 1996 to 1,869,241 pounds in 1999, a 93 percent jump in just three years. The Food Bank has seen a 7 percent increase in the amount of food it shipped in the last year alone, a percentage that will likely increase as the year progresses, with no let-up in sight.
“The general public, as well as the grassroots community and, slowly, the Legislature and the Department [of Public Health and Human Services, or DPHHS] are realizing that we took a wrong turn with welfare reform, and now we need to go back and fix some of the crises we caused,” says Wendy Young, state policy coordinator for WEEL in Helena.
The tide may be turning, albeit slowly. Young says that as the state enters “FAIM Phase Two,” the next phase of welfare reform, DPHHS is reconsidering how it conducts some of its business. For example, the Department is reexamining the usefulness of welfare sanctions, which deny welfare recipients cash assistance, food stamps and health insurance, often for minor rules infractions. Last year, DPHHS came under fire from low-income advocates for having one of the highest sanctioning rates in the nation. Today, the rate of sanctioning has dwindled, and discussions are underway to shift from a punitive to an incentive-based system.
“This is a huge, huge mental shift from where we were two years ago,” says Young.
One low-income issue that’s landed on the front burner this week is the contentious federal mandate requiring social security numbers on fishing and hunting licenses, an effort intended to help states track deadbeat dads who fail to make child support payments. Already a petition is circulating statewide to put this requirement to a referendum on the November ballot, and this week the Legislature considered a bill to bypass the petition drive altogether and put the issue to a vote. If passed by Montana voters, Montana stands to lose $116 million in federal support, which would effectively bankrupt the state’s welfare system.
One solution, offered this week by Rep. Hal Harper (D-Helena) could please both privacy advocates and low-income advocates by having the state request a waiver from the federal government from the social security number requirement. Instead, hunters and fishermen would provide their driver’s license numbers, which in Montana is either a social security number or a randomly selected nine-digit number. With a driver’s license number, the state can identify an individual’s social security number, but that number would not be available to anyone who sells hunting and fishing licenses, as privacy advocates object to.
Low-income mothers would also like to see some streamlining and expansion of CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program. Established during the last legislative session using federal tax dollars, CHIP has the potential to provide health insurance to 10,000 low-income children. The program has been well-received among lawmakers and statewide candidates, some of whom have even discussed expanding its coverage to children living at 200 percent of the poverty level, and perhaps even their parents.
Unfortunately, CHIP has received some criticism for its spotty outreach program, which, in a classic bureaucratic Catch-22, ties administrative funding for outreach to the number of children already enrolled; thus, it takes more children enrolled to get more children enrolled. As a result, in the last year, only 5,200 of the 10,000 slots have been filled. Fortunately, the once-cumbersome 17-page application has been reduced to a mere four pages.
Finally, what low-income mothers say they would like more than anything else—more than the use of Montana’s $27.7 million in unspent federal funds for poverty relief, or the complete elimination of welfare sanctions—is the simple recognition that the predicament of poverty they find themselves in is not indicative of some personal defect in character, but rather is symptomatic of a larger system in need of further reform.
“Motherhood is work,” says Karlyn Linnemeyer, a single mother of three on public assistance because her husband owes her more than $16,000 in child support. “I’m so tired of having to defend my wanting to be a mother. Where does society, and Missoula especially, place the importance of raising happy, healthy children?”