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Missoula welfare activist and social justice advocate Kate Kahan will move to Washington, D.C., later this month to work for Sen. Max Baucus, leading welfare reform efforts on his Finance Committee staff.

Kahan stood out in a two-month national search because of her consensus-building work as the executive director of the Missoula-based group Working for Equality and Economic Liberation and as coordinator of the Western Regional Welfare Activists' Network, said Baucus' communications director Barrett Kaiser.

"Max looked at the success that she'd had in advocacy for the poor and social change," he said, "and at her ability to bring people to the table to work together to get things done."

Kahan hopes to bring the successes of Montana's progressive welfare reform work to the new incarnation of the federal welfare program, called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or TANF. The 1996 program expired Sept. 30 and is operating on an extension passed by Congress that will take it through spring.

"So many of us are touched by poverty, living in Montana, because of the wages we have," she said from Washington. "There is unique, valuable knowledge that Montana brings to the Finance Committee."

Montana has been a leader in such policies as allowing people on welfare to pursue a postsecondary education to increase their earning power, which WEEL has advocated. Kahan and WEEL have also worked at making child-care money a part of the equation.

"We've learned a lot about giving people the opportunity to move out of poverty," she said.

Kahan, 30, is a University of Montana graduate who is herself a former welfare recipient and is mother of an 11-year-old son. A Montana resident for 17 years, she drew welfare and worked while earning her degree in Women's Studies, graduating in 1999. She has 10 years' experience in social justice work and worked for the Women's Center at UM while in school. She has been director of WEEL just more than four years and has won national awards for her work. This spring, she will receive the Ms. Foundation Women Gloria Award.

Kahan's presence as Baucus' lead professional staff for welfare will be "marvelous" and beneficial for Montana and the other states, said Jennifer Carter, director of Missoula County Public Assistance.

"She is bright, she has common sense, she has a sense of the pulse of low-assets people," Carter said. "She's energetic. She's got a lot of credibility. She built WEEL's credibility with the established agencies. She approached all of us with the idea of working together."

Years of data show that education helps people permanently break the cycle of poverty, Carter said. She hopes that Kahan's work can help shape a new federal welfare program that promotes it. Now, there is "just a dribble" of money for postsecondary education help.

"It could make all the difference in the world for the rest of the country," she said.

"I wish her every success, for her personally and for all the parents and children we work with every day who are struggling to break out of that cycle for the rest of time."

WEEL and Kahan have also worked against the notion that marriage is a solution to poverty and that mothers on welfare should be coerced into marriage.

Baucus is the top Democrat - the minority party in the Senate - on the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the welfare program. That position entitles him to extra staff who are dedicated solely to the Finance Committee and work as expert advisers and policy developers.

Kahan had been traveling to Washington so much that some of her work will not change dramatically, said Judy Smith, who has worked on welfare reform issues for years and is director of the Center for Policy Analysis and Community Change based at Women's Opportunity and Resource Development in Missoula.

Kahan, Smith and others have been engaging the powers in Washington in the need for postsecondary education help and other policies that move people off welfare permanently, Smith said.

"We hope the conversation continues," Smith said, "and that her presence makes that happen."

Kahan was looking on Wednesday for a house and for a school for 11-year-old Elliot in Washington. She starts work Jan. 20.

"I love Montana so much, and it's in my heart," she said. "There's a unique quality of life in Montana and in Missoula. It's going to be an adjustment."

Naomi DeMarinis will replace Kahan as executive director of WEEL. DeMarinis was a WEEL board member for two years and board president for one year. She has been employed by WEEL since July as director of outreach and communications. She was formerly the multicultural coordinator for the YWCA in Missoula.

WEEL will continue its course in Montana, she said.

"We want to see poverty ended," she said. "Beyond that, day to day, we want to see that people living in poverty are part of the day-to-day process of decision-making that shapes their lives."

Reporter Ginny Merriam can be reached at 523-5251 or at gmerriam@missoulian.com.

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