By CURT WOODWARD/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Erin Lane, a single mother of two, sobbed today as she talked about the loss of welfare money she needs to make ends meet while trying to finish her college education.
The Missoula woman said the state's proposed cut in benefits will force her to drop out of school and get a full-time job, just one semester shy of having her diploma from the University of Montana.
''It would force me to spend less time with my children,'' she said at a news conference held shortly before a hearing here on the planned reduction in a program providing cash assistance to the state's poor.
She and other welfare recipients, joined by low-income advocacy groups, pleaded with the administration of Gov. Judy Martz to prevent the benefits cut by using some of the $73 million in federal aid the state will soon receive.
The administration has said it wants to save, not spend, the money.
The 2003 Legislature diverted $3 million from the cash assistance program to one that helps working parents pay for child care services. The result is that the monthly benefit for a family of three will fall by one-fourth - from $507 to $375.
Without cutting cash payments, the expected increase in caseloads would leave the program short about $22 million over the next two years, state Department of Public Health and Human Services officials have said.
The agency estimates about 17,000 Montanans will be affected by the reductions.
Earl Old Person, chief of the Blackfeet Tribe, said many tribal members will be among those hurt by the decrease.
''Welfare is not a degrading thing for anybody,'' he said. ''It's a right for our people to receive when they need help.''
State welfare officials had predicted the benefit cut even before the Legislature adjourned in April.
Lawmakers defended the diversion of money, saying the child care subsidy was critical for parents to keep their jobs and avoid needing additional welfare.