By GRAHAM UNDERWOOD/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - More than 1,000 Montana families have stopped receiving money from a cash assistance program since lawmakers reduced it eight months ago, and state officials are launching a study to try to determine what happened to those people.
Some public officials and advocates for the poor say they're expecting the worst.
''My interpretation of that drop-off is just people are at that hopeless stage,'' said Mary Caferro, a lobbyist with the low-income group Working for Equality and Economic Liberation.
The Department of Public Health and Human Services showed 5,350 families in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program last month - a decrease of 1,071 from May. Hank Hudson, director of the agency's human and community services, said officials don't know yet if those families became self-sufficient or sank deeper into poverty.
''Probably people are living in both situations,'' Hudson said. ''What we don't know is how many people left the state because of these (reduced) benefits.''
Hudson said officials plan to begin a telephone survey before month's end to find out what has happened with the former TANF families, with results expected within six weeks. While some low-income families may be without telephone service, Hudson said mail-in surveys have been less successful in the past.
Last spring, the money-starved Legislature approved diverting $3 million from TANF, a cash assistant program, to one that helps pay for child care services for the poor. Lawmakers believed the switch would help more parents hold jobs and still be able to pay for child care.
The state also reduced cash assistance by 26 percent - lowering the monthly benefit for a family of three from $507 to $375.
To be eligible for payment, which is funded by a $44 million in federal aid, families cannot make more than 30 percent of the federal poverty level, after deductions including dependents and housing. The Legislature last year reduced that limit from 40.5 percent.
''We had to take three steps backward to stay ahead,'' said Leroy Moore, an East Helena janitor. When he and his wife, Raygienne, married in July, her TANF benefits, which already had been cut in half, were eliminated completely because their joint income disqualified them for the program.
Raygienne Moore decided to quit her part-time job and stay home with the couple's two children, saving child-care costs. They still need food stamps to get by.
The couple said they delayed paying hundreds of dollars in power bills and waited four months to get dental work done for their 8-year-old son.
Hudson said his agency had first estimated that no more than 55 families and children would lose their eligibility in the program. He said the caseload decline could be, in part, because low-income parents have taken advantage of more available child-care assistance and gone to work.
However, some advocates for the poor say they doubt that's the case.
Naomi Thornton, director of the nonprofit Futures program in Missoula, which helps teenage parents complete their education, said many of her clients are dropping out of the program because a requirement of 120 hours of work-related activity a month doesn't seem to be worth the less than $300 they'll receive.
''They're not having any income,'' Thornton said. ''So, we're concerned what are the choices they might make just to survive.''
That worry is echoed by the director of one of the state's few residential programs for teen mothers who says her clients are also passing up TANF money and taking chances instead.
''What I see in some cases is them living with abusive partners, leaving their babies with them, with people they wouldn't normally leave them with,'' said Gypsy Ray of Mountain Home Montana in Missoula.
Social workers and participants say the financial situation of those who continue to get TANF aid also has worsened. More than 80 of the recipients are single parents - primarily mothers.
''The families are decaying from the inside out,'' said Greg Daly, coordinator of Lewis and Clark County's Family/Child Health Program, who recently made his rounds with a truckload of mattresses for children who had nowhere to sleep.
Daly and other workers in the program complain that, instead of improving lives, more of their time is now spent on issues such as dissuading clients from taking out title loans on their vehicles to pay bills. They hear of food stamps traded to pay electric bills, livings earned by shoplifting and an underground network of free places to sleep.
Diana Hanson, a single mother of three, spends more than a fourth of her monthly $452 payment on diapers. Even with the $300 a month she makes cleaning motel rooms, Hanson had to ask her boss for a loan to pay for her children's medication, she said.
Hanson, 30, lives in a usually darkened apartment to cut down on the electric bill. Moneysaving improvisations include making her own baby wipes by cutting a roll of paper towels in half and soaking it in hot water. She hasn't been able to break her smoking habit, but cut back from two daily packs to a half-pack.
''I don't even want to quit because I'm so stressed,'' said Hanson, an accounting student who began receiving her welfare payments in October.
In the past year, state officials have noticed a strain on local organizations such as food banks and shelters.
''One of the things we've learned is there is a tremendous capacity in communities to help, but that capacity is being tested,'' Hudson said. ''We're probably exploring that limit right now.''
So are organizations such as God's Love Inc. in Helena where about $200,000 a month is going toward services such as emergency shelter. Since the TANF reductions, Maria Nyberg, assistant director of God's Love, said there even seems to be an increase in ''unclassifiable'' needs, such as a few dollars for help with children's birthday parties or school photos.
Nyberg, speaking on a day the mission had 14 children placed in temporary housing, said about five families a month are turned away from the shelter. She said most requests are not coming from those who are homeless, but from families that simply are having trouble making ends meet.
''My concern is when people start to experience a sense of hopelessness, then it's more difficult to try hard,'' she said. ''And I'm concerned that we are going from a two-parent working family to families where they have two parents working three jobs.
''I have to question the implications of that for the children we are raising. Parents are doing what they have to survive, but at what cost?''