MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA
Montana is seeing an increased demand for welfare programs since the start of the recession with many new requests coming from families that have never before sought food stamps or other assistance. Over the past year, the number of households receiving food stamps has gone up 19 percent, the Department of Public Health and Human Services said. And cash assistance for needy families has gone up 10 percent. Similar increases can be found in the demand for Medicaid and the Ch i l d r e n ' s He a l t h I n s u r a n c e Program. Linda Snedigar, who manages some programs for the Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the agency is seeing a new type of applicant. "They are an entirely different group of people, people who had been secure and had homes and mortgages and all of the sudden lost total income," she said. "The Flathead area is the first area where we had seen this." Medicaid caseload has increased by 4,000 to 82,000 since last fall. At the same time, CHIP enrollment has gone up more than 1,000 cases to nearly 18,000 cases. That is expected to grow substantially when voterapproved eligibility increases go into effect later in the year. Snedigar estimated that roughly 10 percent of the state's people are using food stamps under a program known as SNAP, now that enrollment has grown to 96,000. She said most of the growth is in larger counties and those like Flathead County where job losses have been acute. But some of the case growth is shifting to rural areas. The agency has found the recession is prompting people to move to rural areas with cheaper rent. People are also more likely to return home to live with family, Snedigar said. Snedigar said she expects case growth should level off for the summer since more seasonal jobs are typically available in Montana. Fall should really tell the agency how deep the recession will affect state services. "October will be, in our world, the next big moment of truth," she said. The agency said its budget reserves may not be adequate to cover increased caseloads over the next two years. The Legislature gave an extra $20 million in reserves to the agency for increased caseload growth, anticipating the recession's effect. But Hank Hudson, a DPHHS administrator, said the growth is at the upper end of projections made during the Legislature earlier this year. "No one fully understands the course this recession is going to take," he said. "I would be surprised if that money set aside will be completely adequate."