Looking Back on Welfare Reform in Montana 

The Grim Face of Montana's Welfare Reform

Photos by Chad Harder

It doesn't take much to make Matthew Bell smile.

He smiles when you pop your head inside his trailer, or when his kitten scampers along the back of the couch, or even when Maury Povich's face appears on the TV set in the living room.

Matt, a 16-year-old child with Down's Syndrome, lives with his mother in a run-down trailer in a muddy clearing of pines some 15 miles outside of Bigfork. Matt, who speaks in two-word sentences and functions at the level of an eight-year-old, understands little of what goes on around him, which may be one of his few blessings in life.

The same cannot be said for his mother, Diana, who understands all too well the severity of their predicament. Unlike her son, she understands that of the $681 they receive each month in child support, $550 goes directly to paying for their trailer. Although they qualify for food stamps and Medicaid, Diana and Matt are left with only $131 each month to survive.

Single mother of three Nicole Morkert is working three jobs to try to make ends meet. She has been “sanctioned” off of welfare three times, and was never informed about her right to a fair hearing.

That money doesn't begin to make a dent in the more than $1,000 they owe on an overdue electricity bill, which Diana fears will be disconnected any day now. Or the several hundred dollars they owe for phone service, one of their few links to the outside world.

Diana can't even entertain the notion of paying for car insurance, let alone the traffic ticket she received for driving while uninsured. Though the nearest store is miles away, she rarely drives unless it's absolutely necessary, for fear of being arrested. The list goes on and on.

Is the case of Diana and Matt Bell unique? Of course it is, as unique a story as anyone's who skates along the razor's edge of severe poverty. But extraordinary? Hardly.

Diana and Matt Bell are just two of the thousands of former welfare recipients being touted by Governor Marc Racicot as the "success" of welfare reform in Montana. Although its official name is "Families Achieving Independence in Montana," or FAIM, all evidence indicates that FAIM has done little to achieve its stated goal: namely, to move welfare recipients to self-sufficiency and financial independence.

In fact, based on conversations with former and current welfare recipients, as well as with policy analysts, welfare advocates, and charitable workers scrambling to patch the ever-widening holes in our social safety nets, the unstated goal of FAIM seems to be to move people off public assistance by any means necessary. In practice, that has meant steering people into mostly minimum wage, service industry jobs that provide families with little or no health benefits, growth potential, or financial stability.

"I was told by my case worker that I should forget about going back to school and go get a job at McDonald's," says Diana, who spent months searching in vain for a way to pay for an education to become a substance abuse counselor. When even a personal phone conversation with Governor Racicot could not lead her to adequate funding, Diana was forced to abandon her plans.

Diana faces tremendous obstacles to finding work at all, in part because of her educational level and where she lives, but also because Matt requires constant supervision when he is not in school. Few employers are willing to work around Diana's necessarily erratic schedule. The average teenage baby sitter is not appropriate for a boy his age, and a home nurse is far beyond Diana's means.

"I was told by my FAIM case worker that I should consider putting my son in a group home, that I should sell my house. Hey, it's not much, but it's all I got," says Diana. "Is that the only way for me to get off welfare, by giving my child away?"

FAIM vs. Fortune

Stories like Diana's are not uncommon to Raquel Castellanos and Toni McOmber, co-directors of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation (WEEL). A Missoula-based advocacy group dedicated to protecting the rights of Montana's low-income population, WEEL was formed in May, 1996 in response to the state's welfare reform policies.

Castellanos and McOmber, both former case workers themselves in the Montana JOBS program, recognized immediately how FAIM's "instant employment framework" would result in thousands of people-mostly single mothers with young children-slipping further into poverty, hunger, and homelessness.

Since its inception, WEEL has advised, counseled, and occasionally served as informal advocates to more than 1,100 welfare recipients from across Montana, victims of what Castellanos calls the state's "cookie-cutter approach" to social services.

“I was told by my FAIM case worker that I should forget about going back to school and go get a job at McDonald’s”, says Diana Bell, one of 155,000 Montanans living below the poverty line.

WEEL's most pressing concern these days is Montana's so-called "sanctioning" policy that denies welfare recipients cash assistance, food stamps, and health insurance for such minor infractions as showing up late for staff consultations or writing down the wrong date for appointments. Far from being extreme cases or last-ditch measures, sanctions have essentially become a tool for diverting people off Montana's welfare rolls, according to Castellanos.

Although the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS), the state agency that administers FAIM, claims its sanctioning rate is only 5 or 6 percent, Castellanos and others put that number closer to 30 percent, making it one of the highest in the nation. In response, WEEL staged a rally last December in Helena and called on Governor Racicot to impose an immediate moratorium on the state's "punitive, capricious and arbitrary" sanctioning policies.

The governor, though sympathetic, claimed that a moratorium was beyond his authority, but agreed to personally review any sanctioning cases put before him. To date, Montana's sanctioning policies remain unchanged.

"My feeling on sanctions is that ... they're an important part of the success of welfare reform," says Hank Hudson, administrator of the Human and Community Services Division of DPHHS. Hudson admits that while sanctioning policies do need further review and revision, he insists that "they are used as a motivational tool and not as a punishment."

Try to convince Missoula resident Nicole Morkert that sanctions are not punitive. A single parent of three children, Morkert went on welfare after her divorce in 1996, when "I left my marriage with nothing but a high school diploma."

Morkert was sanctioned in June of 1997 when she lost her job at a lumber mill in Sanders County after her boss saw that she was not physically strong enough to do the work. Although at the time she was the only woman employed at the mill, Morkert's Family Investment Agreement (FIA)-the contract that all FAIM participants must sign in order to receive public assistance-required that she take and keep any job offered to her.

Morkert's sympathetic boss wrote her a letter stating the reason for her termination, which she planned to use in her "good cause" determination. Under the provisions of FAIM, anyone who violates the conditions of their FIA can ask for a good cause waiver from sanctions, for reasons ranging from illness or injury, to temporary breakdown in transportation or child care arrangements, to physical inability to perform a job.

In Morkert's case, the letter from her boss arrived in the mail 24 hours too late. A different letter arrived on time-this one informing her that she was being sanctioned for two months, and would immediately lose her $550 monthly cash benefits.

The result was that Morkert's rent and bills went unpaid, she lost her car and was evicted from her apartment. Because she was homeless, her ex-husband took her five-year-old daughter away and moved to Salt Lake City.

Consider, too, the case of Rebekah, who asked that her last name be withheld. A single mother of two living in Helena, she was sanctioned six of the nine months she was pregnant, mostly for missing career training classes mandated in her FIA. Although Rebekah suffered from a thyroid condition and major complications during her pregnancy which were confirmed by her doctor, she and her four-year-old were forced to live on $97 a month and $168 in food stamps.

Reforming the Reform

Cases like these-and worse-abound in Montana. Advocates at WEEL are hoping that several bills currently before the Legislature (including the one they proposed, HB 602) will alleviate the more draconian horror stories. HB 602, sponsored by Representative Carolyn Squires of Missoula, would implement a customer service review program and impose stringent notification policies on case managers before sanctions are ever imposed.

Although welfare recipients whose benefits are removed are entitled to a fair hearing, only seven percent of the those who are sanctioned ever elect to do so, either out of fear or ignorance of the administrative process. Some fear retaliation from their case managers if they try to rock the boat. Others have even heard case managers suggest that they leave the state in order to get their benefits back.

Hudson discounts such claims and says his agency has an excellent due-process system that provides for extensive review and opportunities for independent hearings. As evidence, he points to the 43 out of 50 hearings in which sanctions were later upheld as justified.

Of Diana Bell’s eight children, only Matt lives with her. None of her other children are on welfare.

"We expect our offices to be compassionate and to be sensitive," Hudson said, "but we also expect people to understand that there are consequences for their actions."

But what are the enduring consequences for people like Diana Bell and Nicole Morkert who are sanctioned, then eventually disappear from the welfare rolls? Hudson says it's difficult to say, because few people bother to inform the department of where they're going.

The fact is, Montana has no system for tracking what happens to welfare recipients who lose their benefits. But a look at the state's charitable organizations and nonprofit agencies that have been forced to pick up the slack provides some clues.

Since February, 1996 (when Montana began implementing welfare reform), 70 percent of all food banks and pantries have seen a dramatic upsurge in their workload. The Montana Food Bank Network in Missoula, a nonprofit agency that provides food and other basic necessities to about 90 food pantries statewide, has seen the number of people they annually serve increase nearly fourfold, from about 200,000 visits in 1993 to about 800,000 visits in 1998.

Not surprisingly, the number of people cut from the welfare rolls coincides almost exactly with the increased number of people visiting food banks, according to Peggy Grimes, director of the Montana Food Bank Network. And what happens when the federally mandated, 60-month time clock runs out for the thousands of welfare recipients who are due to be cut from the welfare rolls by 2001?

"It's an unknown, " says Grimes. "Nobody knows at this point how bad the impact is going to be."

Few people doubt that things will get worse before they get better. In 1998, the Montana Food Bank Network experienced a 500,000-pound shortfall of food supplies, forcing pantries throughout the state to ration the number of visits people could make. Words like "triage" and "emergency relief" have now crept into their daily vernacular.

Currently, DPHHS is negotiating a four-year contract to study how Montana's poor are coping with welfare reform. It's a peculiar use of state resources, considering that in four years virtually all of Montana's current welfare recipients will no longer qualify for FAIM assistance.

More importantly, the state should already know what it will find-it paid for a $25,000 study on this subject five years ago, which to date has never been released or even publicly acknowledged.

In 1993, Dr. Patrick Edgar, then a policy analyst at the University of Montana, was asked by the Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services (SRS, now DPHHS) to conduct a population study of Montana's welfare recipients in anticipation of welfare reform.

Edgar, who holds a doctorate in public administration, was neither a poverty expert nor a welfare advocate. He came to this assignment with no particular bias, social agenda or preconceived notions of what he might find. At the time, he says, the state simply wanted a better picture of what its welfare population looked like. Edgar offered to perform a policy analysis of FAIM at no extra cost. The state agreed.

Edgar's survey of 600 recipients and former AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) recipients was conducted over a three-week period in December of 1993, with questionnaires and interviews written and performed by the SRS. The results refuted many of the prevailing stereotypes that were being used to justify welfare reform at the time.

Notably, Edgar found no relationship between the growth in welfare rolls and Montana's teen pregnancy rate. Similarly, he found no evidence of widespread intergenerational dependency. That is, children of welfare recipients were no more likely than others to wind up on welfare themselves. Furthermore, his study identified no trend toward long-term dependency. The agency's own records indicated that less than 15 percent of all welfare recipients drew benefits for more than two years. In fact, the data clearly showed that the single biggest factor contributing to the state's welfare rolls was the failure of noncustodial parents to pay child support.

If Edgar's initial findings made the folks at SRS squirm in their chairs, it was his projections about FAIM's effectiveness that seemed to push them into full-scale denial.

Edgar concluded that, far from moving people into self-sufficiency, FAIM would result in widespread suffering and hunger, especially among children. He saw no indication that families would be better off, achieve gainful employment, or move closer to economic or family stability. In fact, the department's own inability to follow the progress of those who left the welfare rolls meant that it had no means of measuring its own success or failure.

Even more disturbing, Edgar projected that a significant number of welfare recipients-approximately 20 percent-would be placed at considerable personal risk when they lost their benefits, by being forced back into abusive relationships.

"There were areas where (SRS) was literally asking me to report the results differently," says Edgar, who claims that the department threatened to withhold his final payment if he didn't alter his findings. "I just refused."

"That's the last I ever heard," Edgar continues. "Nothing from the report was ever made public. In fact, I don't ever recall anyone acknowledging that the study was ever done."

Hudson, who was not with the department in 1994, says he is aware of Edgar's report but has not read it. He denies that any efforts were made to keep the report secret, and asserts that the study is available to anyone who wants to read it.

Welfare As We Know It

Interestingly, Edgar predicted within the report itself how the bureaucracy would react to his findings, prophetically stating that it would be "buried." And although he cannot prove this assertion, Edgar suspects that this experience has resulted in his being blacklisted from future government contracts.

Dr. Edgar's projections have proved tragically accurate. A study released last summer by Paul Miller at the University of Montana, in conjunction with The Montana Hunger Coalition and others revealed that almost every FAIM household they studied lived in "deep poverty," that is, at or below 50 percent of the official poverty line. On average, these households were more than $300 a month short of expenditures. None in the study was close to attaining self-sufficiency.

"There's this perception out there that these people are riding the gravy train, " says Edgar. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

In 1997, the Montana Food Bank Network provided food to 169,179 people in the state. At the network itself, one employee supports a family of eight on $7.50 an hour.

Nor does our state's economic landscape serve as an inspiring backdrop. Montana is currently ranked 48th nationally in per capita income. It leads the nation in the rate of poverty increase since 1994, at just over 17 percent. Its young child poverty rate (that is, children under six) has increased by 53 percent in the last two decades.

Nevertheless, there is still a tendency to portray poverty as a phenomenon of personal failure and moral deviance, rather than as a symptom of structural deficiencies in our state's economy, such as an inequitable labor market or poor educational opportunities.

The language of welfare reform reflects such prevailing myths. FAIM recipients are repeatedly referred to as "these people," whose children bear the stigma of "illegitimacy." Even the federal law that effectively dismantled 60 years of social welfare-"The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconcilia-tion Act of 1996"-conceals its devolving nature behind the lofty imagery of rugged individualism and brave, new opportunities for upward mobility.

Meanwhile, Montana's poor struggle with a welfare system that they variously describe as "degrading," "humiliating," and "a trap." Little wonder that Dr. Edgar's study found that the number one reason why people leave the welfare rolls is because of their universal disdain for the way they are treated.

"We are belittled, we are harassed and we are threatened," says Diana Bell. "We're pretty much told we're not worth a damn."

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