A recent study by the Colorado Center on Law and Policy and Hunger Free Colorado showed not all eligible Montezuma County residents are receiving state-funded food security and health support.
On Wednesday, using data from the most recent U.S. census and five federally and state-funded human service programs, the two organizations released a new “gap map” of each county in Colorado, comparing the number of people eligible for government assistance with the number of people receiving it. In Montezuma County, the study found that, in most of the programs, less than half the eligible population was receiving benefits. Compared with neighboring counties like La Plata, Montezuma’s gap is relatively small, but it was still listed as one of the worst areas in the state for access to some programs.
According to the data, 57 percent of residents who are eligible are receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. An estimated 46 percent of eligible residents are enrolled in the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. Colorado Works, which is Colorado’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, and the Colorado Child Care Assistance Program, designed to help provide child care for working parents, have even lower participation rates. An estimated 21 percent of those eligible for Colorado Works are enrolled, and just 12 percent of those eligible for CCCAP. Enrollment in Medicaid is comparatively high, at 87 percent.
Colorado Center spokeswoman Michelle Webster said those numbers are comparable to participation rates across Colorado. This is the second “gap map” her organization has helped to create, and both versions have shown low participation in all programs except Medicaid.
“When it comes to food assistance, we are one of the poorest performing states in terms of access,” she said.
There are several possible reasons for the gap, she said. In the case of Colorado Works and CCCAP, the source of funding may be to blame. Both programs are funded at a federal level by “block grants” – set amounts of money allocated to the states, which are given discretion on how to spend them. Unlike Medicaid and SNAP, which are entitlements automatically available to anyone who qualifies for them, Colorado Works and CCCAP have a finite number of resources to award, which means some eligible recipients can get left behind.
But that doesn’t explain why so few Montezuma County residents are receiving SNAP benefits – an entitlement for which an estimated 6,375 residents qualify. Webster said that is one of the strangest trends revealed by the map, especially when compared with the high rate of participation in Medicaid, another entitlement.
“A high share of the population eligible for Medicaid is also eligible for food assistance,” she said. “When you think about how access to nutritional food affects health ... these programs are very complementary of each other.”
But while enrollment in Medicaid is relatively high in almost all counties, and is rising in some areas, enrollment in SNAP tends to lag far behind. Enrollment in the program has increased substantially over the past few years as the state changed its eligibility requirements, but even in Denver, one of the top counties in the state for program access, only 65 percent of eligible people are enrolled in SNAP benefits, compared with 90 percent of eligible Medicaid recipients.
Josiah Forkner, director of Montezuma County’s Department of Social Services, said he believes many people who qualify for SNAP don’t want the benefits, either because of the “stigma that comes with being in a social services office,” or simply because they don’t feel the need for food assistance.
“Just because people are eligible for a certain entitlement doesn’t automatically equate to people believing they need that service,” he said in a Wednesday email.
Delilah Darland, a parent education specialist at the Montezuma County Public Health Department, said the county is attempting to boost residents’ SNAP benefits with a program called Double Up Bucks, which allows recipients to get double the value of their food stamps in fresh produce at the summer Cortez Farmers Market. She said she hopes efforts like this will help low-income families get better access to nutritious food.
Rural counties like Montezuma may face some unique challenges when it comes to making assistance available to low-income residents. Darland said she believes low participation in the WIC program is partly due to a lack of transportation. In order to participate, families with young children must make appointments at the Public Health headquarters in Cortez at least twice a year, and they are strongly encouraged to attend classes on prenatal care, nutrition and other skills. Many needy families in rural areas have trouble traveling to Cortez, and until recently, Darland said, the USDA-funded program didn’t have the resources to come to them.
That may change this year, she said, since her department recently received a grant for a “WIC resource van” that will be able to travel around the county to enroll and educate new families. But she added that families who enroll in the program will still be encouraged to take nutrition classes.
“We are supposed to have more people on the program than we do, and I want to add more, but I don’t want to lose the educational piece,” she said. “It’s quality over quantity.”
The first gap map, released in 2016, put Montezuma County between the worst 16 counties and the 16 best ones, but the new map uses different methodology. According to the new map, Montezuma is one of the 20 counties in Colorado with the lowest program participation, but it’s slightly better than La Plata County in most areas. La Plata only has a 45 percent participation rate in SNAP and 80 percent in Medicaid. The only La Plata County programs with better participation rates than Montezuma County are Colorado Works, in which 54 percent of eligible recipients are enrolled, and WIC, in which 47 percent are enrolled.