Soup kitchen lines grow after Idaho welfare cuts Strict new law results in 70 percent decline in assistance applications


BOISE, Idaho -- As Idaho's new welfare law nears the five-month mark, the number of people on welfare has fallen sharply, but the lines at soup kitchens are stretching into the streets.

It is a perplexing -- some critics would say, predictable -- juxtaposition as winter weather and the holiday season hit this mountain state.

The state's strict new law has resulted in a 70 percent decline in the number of single women with children applying for federal and state cash assistance -- to about 2,000 families as of Dec. 1 from 6,800 families receiving aid before July 1.

"It's exponentially higher than what we expected," said state Sen. Gordon F. Crow, a Republican from Coeur d'Alene who is a member of an advisory group appointed by the governor to study welfare. "It's stunning."

Idaho welfare officials expected to see about a 30 percent reduction in caseload based on new, stricter requirements for receiving federal and state aid.

On a national basis, the welfare caseload is dropping, too. President Clinton has trumpeted the success of federal measures to overhaul welfare by noting a decline of 1.4 million people seeking federal aid.

Idaho's program, called Temporary Assistance for Families in Idaho, cuts off aid to welfare recipients after 24 months; there was no time limit before. Cash assistance is limited to $276 a month, regardless of how many children live at home, compared with $382 a month for a single woman with three children under the old program.

Officials who provide emergency food assistance in Boise fear the state's new policies are causing a higher demand for their services -- far more than expected.

The El Ada Community Action Agency in Boise, for example, had a threefold increase in requests for food boxes. One of its soup kitchens has seen a 30 percent increase in people seeking meals. The Idaho Food Bank Warehouse, an emergency food-assistance agency, reported a 43 percent increase in food aid.

The Boise Rescue Mission, which provides free food and housing in the downtown area, now serves about 240 meals a day, almost double the 125 meals served at this time last year.

"We're definitely feeling the crunch," said the Rev. Tony Chung, executive director of the mission.

Single women with children are the fastest-growing segment of the mission's clientele, Chung said. His agency hopes to build new housing for single women and children.

Susan McClain, 27, a single mother of three children, said El Ada's soup kitchens had been a real savior for her family. McClain, a former recipient of cash assistance, is still waiting for her paperwork to get processed under the new program, about two months after filing for aid. Applications are supposed to be processed within 45 days.

McClain is working part time at a motel. "When I run out of food stamps and I don't have any money left, we'd be in pretty bad shape if I had nowhere to go for a meal," she said. "I hope they approve my application soon or we're not going to have a very good Christmas."

Jennifer Hewit, a 21-year-old single mother of one toddler in Boise, said she supported initiatives to overhaul welfare "because there were too many ways to cheat the system."

State Health and Welfare officials said that they could not explain exactly why the state's caseload was dropping so fast. A survey of 1,200 past welfare recipients showed that about 25 percent were motivated by tougher standards to get a job. Most of the survey respondents, more than 70 percent, said they were still receiving food stamps and Medicaid.

"We're hypersensitive to what kinds of impacts our reforms have on our people," Crow, the state senator, said. "We want to track the real-life scenarios and see what's happening."

He added, "We ought to make sure that good outcomes are not borne out of some other social travesty."

Pub Date: 12/07/97

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.