HELENA (AP) - Some 17,000 Montanans who receive public assistance will see their benefits reduced by 26 percent beginning Friday as an increasing number of welfare recipients vie for a shrinking pool of state money.
The average family of three on public assistance is expected to see the monthly benefit check drop from $507 to $375.
Despite much publicity about the pending cuts, state officials said they fear some recipients still will be surprised when they open their August checks.
''I think there will be some people who are caught off guard,'' said Hank Hudson, administrator for the state's Human and Community Services Division. ''And while you can tell people this is going to happen, it may not hit home until they get the check and it's smaller.''
State officials say the number of people seeking public assistance has gone up about 30 percent in the past two years. Additionally, the state diverted money from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program to subsidized child care programs. Now, Montanans who work 20 hours a week or more and live at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible for subsidized day care.
Previously, the state offered free day care to workers who lived at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level. The 2003 federal level for a family of three is $15,260.
In light of these and other factors, Hudson called the cuts inevitable.
''I don't think there's any alternative,'' he said. ''I've been hearing some anger from people who are being asked to survive on less than they were barely surviving on before.''
In an attempt to make welfare recipients aware of the looming cuts, Hudson toured 12 Montana communities this summer and talked with families and service providers. Hudson and other state workers assured recipients that the cut in cash assistance will likely increase their food stamp allotment and could reduce rent payments in subsidized housing.
''We don't want people to be blind-sided,'' said Ken Pekoc, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.