Pandemic Exacerbates Existing Economic Inequalities In Montana

Yellowstone Public Radio

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated poverty and economic inequality in Montana. Several Bozeman residents recently shared their struggles in trying to meet basic needs and navigate complicated safety nets.

During a virtual event hosted by Montana No Kid Hungry and the Human Resource Development Council, panelist Lori Lindgren says living in poverty feels like trying to catch a run away train.

“When you’re poor, you’re always behind and you’re trying to catch up,” Lindgren said.

Lindgren is a second year graduate student in the community health program at Montana State University. She works part time for MSU and lives in student family housing with three of her kids. Lindgren says the pandemic has made surviving on a tight budget even harder for her and her family.

“I rarely have enough income to pay my basic bills each month, let alone feed a family of four. I often end up having to choose between which bills to pay in any given month,” Lindgren said.

She’s one of many Montanans struggling right now.

Around 29,000 Montanans were behind on rent last month, and more than twice that 71,000 adults said their households didn’t have enough to eat. That’s according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

As U.S. Congress debates an extension of additional unemployment benefits, low income families are navigating reduced childcare, increased competition for low wage jobs, higher health risks if they return to work and unpaid sick leave.

Lori Lindgren says people living in poverty don’t have large nest eggs in the bank to fall back on.

“This pandemic is impacting people in poverty much more than the middle and upper classes, and it will take us much longer to recover from this,” Lindgren said.

Panelist Tara Jensen is the co director of the Montana Budget and Policy Center, a non profit that focuses on the research and analysis of public policies that most impact Montanans that live on low and moderate incomes.

Jensen, citing June projections from the Legislative Fiscal Division, says Montana is predicted to lose around $67 million in the 2020 financial year and around $213 million in the next.

“You know that’s going to have some dramatic impacts on our state, and it comes on top of cuts from 2017 where we saw a reduction in state revenue, and state general fund cuts comboed with the match of federal funds,” Jensen said.

She says Montana lost about $200 million in funded services through the state health department. While some was replenished.

“There were significant cuts to targeted case management; state closed 19 offices of public assistance, I mean the list goes on and on, and families are still feeling those cuts,” Jensen said.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) says nearly 5,300 more Montanans opened online accounts just in the last 30 days to access public services like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Lori Lindgren says she tried to sign up for SNAP as COVID-19 ramped up and her daughter who lives with her was furloughed.

“And I spent three and a half hours on the state website trying to apply for SNAP, but the site kept crashing and causing me to have to log back in, but it didn’t save any of my information,” Lindgren said.

A week after submitting her application, Lindgren says she missed a call back interview from DPHHS because she was at work. She had to start the process all over again before finding out she wasn’t eligible.

Lindgren says it would be very beneficial if people could schedule their call back interviews when they submit their online applications.

Another panelist, Rema Zabian, says finding support during the pandemic has been complicated by her Green Card status.

“I can’t access the same kinds of services that potentially an American citizen could despite the fact that my daughter is an American citizen and despite the fact that I am a survivor of domestic violence at the hands of an American citizen,” Zabian said.

Zabian, an immigrant from Canada, says she’s going through a divorce, recovering from the physical and traumatic effects of domestic violence, caring for her two year old daughter and 80 year old parents, and working remotely as a health and human services consultant.

She says she comes from a culture where social services are considered a way to help people get back on their feet.

“This stigma that’s associated in this country with accessing help as though it’s a bad thing and there’s a judgement, is really, really a heavy burden for people to carry,” Zabian said.

Both Zabian and Lori Lindgren say they think lawmakers would streamline processes for people to get support if they understood what people living in poverty go through on a day to day basis.

Tara Jensen with the Montana Budget and Policy Center says the recent federal coronavirus relief packages have focused on surviving the pandemic.

“We need policies in Montana that help communities and families be more resilient so we can weather storms that are to come,” Jensen said.

Jensen says the policy center has spent the last several months meeting with community members, experts, advocacy organizations and lawmakers to develop Big Sky Brighter Future. The plan has 35 policy recommendations, which include investing in pre-K and tribal colleges, funding home weatherization for low income families with high energy utilities, providing paid medical leave and supporting more affordable housing, especially for youth aging out of foster care.

The plan has 10 proposals for generating around $240 million a year for these services. The policy center says eliminating the capital gains tax credit and raising the personal income tax for the wealthiest would cover about half of the revenue needed.