The Idaho-Washington border skips anonymously through downtown along the broken yellow stripe of State Street.
But impoverished residents on both sides know the boundary well.
In the month since Idaho launched one of the nation’s most rigorous welfare reform programs, a handful of Panhandle residents have slipped across that line to Washington, attracted by better benefits.
Though just a trickle - less than 30 documented cases statewide thus far - authorities fear it’s the start of a deluge just as the Evergreen State tries to shrink the numbers of dependent families.
Because Old Town, Idaho, and Newport are literally across the street from each other, that fear is intensified here.
“I suppose this could be just the beginning,” sighed Fritzi Reber, manager of the Newport welfare office.
Such moves are legal. People must simply prove residency to qualify for benefits.
And if it’s done before Nov. 1, families have plenty of reason to pack up - at least $170 more a month in cash than Idaho offers, and access to Washington’s inexpensive subsidized health care and better day-care options.
Idahoans who move after Nov. 1 won’t see an immediate increase in cash. They’ll get their old state’s benefits, $276 regardless of family size. But after 12 months of residency, their benefits will rise to Washington’s level, which starts at $440 for a single mother and her child.
Idaho welfare case workers knew from the outset their reforms might send recipients packing. They even started building a database to track the migration.
“I know if I were in that position, I’d sure think about moving,” said Kathy Reed, social service director for the St. Vincent de Paul Men’s Shelter in Coeur d’Alene.
Last month, one recipient told Sandpoint welfare caseworkers she was moving to Newport because Idaho’s new rules won’t let her finish college.
“It almost seems like there’s a campaign in Idaho to push all the low-income people away,” said one volunteer at a North Idaho shelter.
Pend Oreille County commissioners are so worried about a flood of Idahoans that, to discourage newcomers, they recently agreed to strict time limits on food stamps for single, able-bodied residents.
“This could be a real problem,” said Commissioner Joel Jacobsen. “The schools could get crowded, rent could go up, we could find our whole legal system (becoming) more busy.”
At the commission’s request, the state provided $60,000 to hire a special Pend Oreille County welfare fraud investigator. He started last week, the only investigator in the state assigned exclusively to a county.
Four welfare fraud cases are being filed today in Newport. One involves a recipient hiding a Cadillac and motor home from her caseworker.
And other cases await investigation. Legislators hear reports of Washington welfare checks cashed at grocery stores to individuals with Idaho driver’s licenses.
Almost one-third of Pend Oreille County’s 11,200 residents are on public assistance. Food banks are regularly picked clean. Low-income housing is scarce.
“I don’t think there’s any question that there are people in Pend Oreille county who need help,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Colville, who helped the county secure money for the investigator. “But Pend Oreille County was getting the reputation of the welfare capital of the state.”
Welfare officials say the fear of an influx is overblown. Just six families have moved to Pend Oreille County since Idaho began it’s reform. About 20 crossed from Lewiston to Clarkston, Wash.
A handful have transplanted from Coeur d’Alene to the Spokane Valley, although the welfare office there isn’t tracking such moves.
“I expected to see this flood, but what’s happening is a little (increase) each month,” said Lois Green, manager of the Clarkston office.
And Idaho reformers dispute that relocation has played any role in the plunging Panhandle welfare rolls, which fell from 1,200 last year to 435 in July.
“I don’t think we have enough data to support that,” said Steve McKenna, welfare reform coordinator for North Idaho. “Certainly the focus on work is driving most of the reduction.”
Officials note that border-jumpers still face Washington’s five-year lifetime limit on benefits.
And Washington recipients still must get jobs. If they can’t find one, the state will find them one. If a job can’t be found, recipients must work 30 hours a week at a nonprofit agency.
Rural Northeast Washington and North Idaho both have double-digit unemployment. Mines and mills have recently closed their doors. The nearest social service agency to Newport is in Colville, an hour’s drive away.
Yet Daisie Americk, director of Newport’s food bank, hears Idaho welfare recipients talk of border-jumping.
“The climate’s now better over here. There’s no more jobs” than in Idaho, said Americk. “They make no bones about it - the benefits are better.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WELFARE CHANGES On July 1, the federal Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC) program was replaced by new state programs: Temporary Assistance for Families in Idaho (TAFI), and Washington’s WorkFirst. Major changes included: Time limit: In Idaho, a two-year lifetime limit. Welfare collected in another state will be included in that total. In Washington, a five-year lifetime limit. Welfare collected in another state will be included in that total. Maximum cash grant: No Idaho family, regardless of size, will be eligible for more than $276 a month in assistance. In Washington, grants rise with family size, starting with $440 for a family of two. Work required: Recipients in both states must work at least 20 hours per week or be actively seeking work or engaged in approved training programs. Underage parents: In both states, parents under 18 must live with their own parents or in a supervised living arrangement to receive benefits. New mothers: In Idaho, new mothers will be required to work when their child turns 3 months old. In Washington, new mothers are exempt from work requirements for a year. Paternity: In Idaho, single mothers will be required to disclose the identity of a child’s father and cooperate with caseworkers in the collection of child support. There’s no such requirement in Washington. In both states, child support enforcement can suspend deadbeat parents’ drivers’ or professional licenses. Contract: In both states, recipients must meet with a caseworker and sign a contract outlining the steps they will take to become financially self-reliant. Failure to meet terms results in penalties, including temporary or permanent revocation of benefits. School: In Idaho, all children of families receiving assistance must be enrolled and attending school or face a $50 per month reduction in assistance per child. There is no such requirement in Washington. Child care: In Washington, child care for all working poor is subsidized. A family of three making up to $20,000 a year is eligible for subsidies, although a co-payment is required. In Idaho, child care is paid for by the recipient, but reimbursed by the state on a sliding fee scale, based on the parent’s income.