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Financial challenges differ from those in large cities

If you live on welfare in rural Sanders County, you're more likely than town-dwellers to live on a gravel road that beats up your car. Your car is more likely to break. You have no public transportation as a fall-back plan.

If you're looking for work, your choices are mostly jobs that are less than full-time and pay minimum wage or just slightly more.

If you go to the church-based food bank, people are kind to you. But then everybody knows your business.

In short, you face problems that are different from the ones facing welfare recipients and very poor people who live in Montana cities, sociologist Celia Winkler found last summer when she studied the post-welfare reform system in Sanders County. But Winkler also found that people are creative, intelligent and resourceful at surviving in the rural environment. Many put together a patchwork of bartering, trading and making do that would seem remarkable to people in cities.

"Imagine living on $500 a month," Winkler told a small audience at her public talk Tuesday evening at the Milwaukee Station building. "That's a lot of patchworking."

Winkler interviewed one person who hitchhiked every day from Trout Creek into Thompson Falls to meet the work activity requirements of the welfare office.

Winkler, who teaches in the University of Montana sociology department, did her research on a faculty research fellowship from the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West during the summer of 2000. She choose Sanders County for its simple and extreme profile.

In 1970 in Montana, average income per person was 87 percent of the national average; in 1997, it was 78 percent. In 1970 in Sanders County, average income per person was 68 percent of the national average, and by 1997, it had declined to 57 percent.

"You're talking about a steady decreasing parity with national averages," Winkler said.

In 1997 in Montana, 21.3 percent of children lived in poverty; in Sanders County, the percentage was 27.4 percent.

Between 1980 and 1999, the county's population of children under 5 went down by 25 percent, and its young people ages 18 to 34 declined by the same percentage.

The county's top 10 employers include a troubled rural hospital, a bank, a cafe, the Thompson Falls grocery store, a wholesale nursery that employs mostly migrant workers, two declining lumber mills and a rock-picking business that requires its employees to pay their own workers compensation insurance, Winkler said.

Yet the small communities of Sanders County offer the support of people who know and help each other, Winkler found. One woman welfare recipient said welfare workers often suggest that people move.

"And where am I going to relocate to?" she told Winkler. "I've lived here all my life. Move my family down to Missoula and just hope I can get a job? Then worry about my kids every day with crime going on."

"This is a very scary thing," Winkler said, "when you live in a community where you know everybody."

Most community needs assessments in Sanders County communities turn up the same problems: unemployment, lack of jobs and lack of job training.

The best model for rural settings, Winkler found in her research, would take the best from the state system - the right to confidentiality and nondiscriminatory treatment - and the best of the volunteer and faith-based communities - the chance for the recipient to give back and the feeling of family.

"I want to do more work on the theory behind this," Winkler said. "The theory of welfare reform really has to be interrogated in greater depth."

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

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