THIS MONTH'S ISSUE:
Montana has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, yet in the last three years more people here have joined the ranks of the poor than in any other state in the nation. Sixteen percent of Montanans now live below the federal poverty level, including one-quarter of all children under the age of 18.
Montana also has experienced the countrys second-highest decline in median family wages in the last three years. Families make $5,100 less per year in real dollars than they did in 1973, according to a 1997 study on housing affordability in the state.
Such statistics concern Paul Miller, a UM professor of sociology who has worked on poverty issues in Montana for nearly 30 years. His current research focuses on the effects of welfare reform and its potential impact on communities, especially on volunteer-based charitable organizations that must cope with increasing requests for help in the face of lifetime limits on the amount and duration of public aid for welfare recipients.
The welfare dilemma
So far the researchers have received 252 completed questionnaires from households in Missoula, Ravalli, Lincoln, Hill, Lewis and Clark, Gallatin and Yellowstone counties. Families eligible for but not receiving welfare are more likely to have someone on disability or be employed at very low wages, Miller says. Households receiving FAIM, meanwhile, are more likely to be headed by single women trying to raise children with little money. This population, he says, is the primary target of welfare reform, yet the biggest barriers to self-sufficiency are child care and transportation costs, as well as lack of money.
For people in this situation, Miller says, going on welfare is a rational act. But middle Americans, who are working harder than ever, yet earning less, have a tremendous resentment toward single, unwed mothers receiving taxpayer assistance, he says. In their minds, welfare supports people who dont want to work, undermines the work ethic and rewards immoral behavior. And thats what welfare reform is really aimed at.
In the meantime, Miller says, few people are interested in looking at the root causes of poverty, such as the nature of the economy and the growing number of low-wage jobs. Most people in poverty in Montana do work, Miller says, but often intermittently or at seasonal jobs and for very low wages. He has found that when faced with the costs of housing, food, transportation, child care and medical care, the average welfare recipient in Montana still comes up $280 short of meeting basic living expenses each month. As a result, food banks and meal programs are used more and more to make ends meet.
Deep enough pockets?
Sixty percent of food banks also attributed some of this increase to welfare reform, Miller says. But how much is difficult to know.
Miller says that last year the Montana Food Bank Network, which distributes food garnered from donations and gleaned from large transportation accidents and packaging mistakes by a national organization called Second Harvest, fell 320,700 pounds short of the amount requested by member organizations. Local pantries, therefore, must depend on substantial increases in community donations to meet their local needs.
How much elasticity is there in this approach? Miller wonders. Will people in communities keep stepping up to fill the gap, or will they eventually get tired and turn away?
Additionally, Miller says that under the new system there are no guarantees of assistance regardless of budget, as there were in former entitlement programs. With welfare responsibility devolved to the state, even a limited recession in local economies will mean no increase in FAIM support and even more pressure on community organizations.
An increasing dependency?
To find out what churches in Montana know about this clause and what they might think about stepping into a welfare role, Miller surveyed the members of the Montana Association of Churches and received replies from 168 congregations. Only about 10 percent had heard of the charitable-choice clause, he says. Eighty percent did not feel they had the experience or infrastructure to get into the social service business. On the other hand, 75 percent said that getting involved in welfare work could increase the sense of community in their location, and about 70 percent said that a faith-based approach to welfare could be an opportunity for evangelism.
Other questions revealed a high degree of ambivalence on such issues as whether playing a welfare role would cause a schism in the congregation, or even whether churches rather than governments should be responsible for the material welfare of the poor.
For Miller, the bottom line is that while Montana once had the least-dependent population, he sees signs that welfare reform actually is producing more needy people.
The number-one problem (regarding poverty in our society) is low wages, not public dependency, he says. The poor are getting hit now with language and responsibilities they cannot handle given the barriers and challenges in their lives, the existing wage structure and the overall lack of need for their labor power in this economy. To treat them with disdain and chastise them for not doing better, which is the message of welfare reform, is not fair.
Millers welfare-reform research has been supported in part by a grant from The University of Montana and the Northwest Area Foundation to Womens Opportunity and Resource Development (WORD), a nonprofit agency in Missoula that offers an array of services and training to low-income families and individuals.
He presented some of his most recent findings at a statewide conference on The Winds of Change: Navigating Welfare Reform in October. The conference, held in Helena, was sponsored by the Montana Food Bank Network. Miller hopes these studies will be seen as warning signals and a catalyst for further public debate. He doesnt expect much response from government, however.
Too much has been invested in the reform movement to stop it now, he says.