“Use it or lose it” is the warning coming from advocates for Montana’s welfare population about some $29 million in unspent federal money earmarked for poverty reduction that the state could lose if it’s not used soon.
“They says it’s for a rainy day, while our child poverty rate in Montana is 21 percent,” says Kate Kahan, executive director of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation (WEEL), a low-income and welfare advocacy group based in Missoula. “How can we afford not to take care of this problem?”
WEEL, Montana People’s Action and other advocacy groups remain frustrated that federal block grants allocated by Congress—more than $8 billion nationally, according to one recent report—are literally sitting in the bank, doing nothing to help the families they are intended for.
In Montana, the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) admits that at least $26 million in federal funds remain unspent from last year, money that advocates say should be used to expand the Children’s Health Insurance Program, fund the state’s Housing Trust Fund to promote affordable housing, and assist welfare recipients in completing their post-secondary education and moving off the welfare rolls.
“That’s the thing. We don’t know what’s happening to the money,” says Kahan. “We know it’s there. [DPHHS] knows it’s there. The Legislature knows it’s there. The money needs to be spent.”
If not, Kahan says, there’s a good chance that when Congress takes up reauthorization of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program in 2002, that money will not be re-authorized.
Since Montana enacted welfare reform in 1996, advocates have long-argued that the state measures its success by the number of welfare recipients moved off the welfare rolls, rather than looking at more meaningful statistics, such as how many families live in poverty, and whether conditions are improving. They point to other social indicators, such as the rising number of food pantry visits, the prevalence of domestic abuse, and rates of alcoholism, as evidence that conditions for the poor are deteriorating statewide.
Currently, the state has no instrument for tracking welfare recipients once they leave the welfare rolls. But according to Hank Hudson, administrator of the Human and Community Services Division of DPHHS, a survey of 1,090 former welfare recipients revealed what advocates have long known: They are working longer hours for lower wages, are under-utilizing benefits available to them and a disproportionate number have fled the state in search of better opportunities.