Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA) Contact: http://www.sjmercury.com/ Pubdate: Sun, 3 May 1998 Author: Timothy Egan, New York Times IDAHO PUSHES PRISONS OVER SOCIAL WELFARE Statistics on children, poor lead some to question spending plan BOISE, IDAHO -- Come to fast-growing Idaho, the people behind the prosperous new economy here like to say, and you find a nearly crime-free state with no visible poor people. Idaho, the state's leaders say, believes in punishing criminals, and so it has made prison sentences long and certain. Welfare rolls are sharply down, they say, because Idaho sees welfare as short-term help that should be difficult to get. They proudly shun government, and make no apologies for spending little on social welfare. It encourages self-reliance, they say. With little patience for spending on social welfare programs or coddling criminals with policies such as time off for good behavior, state leaders here have charted a course that fits the state's political personality. And if they are filling up prisons at an exceedingly high rate while reducing welfare rolls to an astonishing level, that is the plan and goal. But beneath the sheen of the Gem State are statistics that no one is bragging about. Some social historians say Idaho is in danger of becoming a Rocky Mountain version of Mississippi, which consistently ranks near the bottom of states in spending for children, education and the poor. Over the past 3 1/2 years, Idaho has reduced its welfare rolls by 77 percent, the steepest cut in the nation. Only one other state, South Dakota, spends less per capita on child welfare. But by a huge margin, Idaho's proportion of abused or neglected children leads the nation. Crime is low, but prisons are filling faster than ever. Idaho locks up people for crimes that most states do not even consider felonies. Among the states, its rate of incarceration is growing faster than all but two. Its prisons are filling so quickly that Idaho has to fly people out of state to find cells for them. Experts caution against making too-direct connections between low public investment in children and in the poor and high rates of abuse, neglect and incarceration. But they say the trends in Idaho bear close watching by other states that have reduced spending on basic welfare and education needs of poor children while pouring tax dollars into new prisons. ``Idaho has effectively made itself the worst place in the nation to be poor,'' said John Cook, the research director at Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition policy. A recent study by the center ranked Idaho as the state whose policies were most likely to worsen the economic condition of the poor. People on both sides of the political spectrum say that what is happening in the nation's most Republican state is the consequence of its relatively recent move toward one-party rule. Democrats are not just an endangered species here; there are no statewide Democratic officeholders. In the Legislature, there are only 16 Democrats among the 105 members of the state House of Representatives and the Senate. ``This is the problem with living in a monarchy,'' said the editor of Boise Magazine, Alan Minskoff. ``The monarchy is tough on the poor, it's tough on education, it's tough on the environment. It loves prisons. In order to have some balance, you need two political parties.'' Idaho Gov. Philip Batt is a Republican who generally supports the course his state has chosen, in both prisons and welfare. The poor who leave Idaho's welfare rolls have more self-esteem, he said. But Batt, who considers himself as conservative as any mainstream Republican, has recently warned that perhaps the state is being too hard on children and the poor, and too quick to put people in jail. Idaho is something of a statistical anomaly. It is much more rural than the rest of America. Its small population -- 1.2 million -- is 95 percent white. It has a deep-seated distrust of the federal government, and a tradition of self-reliance. Idaho's isolation, and its homogeneous political and racial makeup, are hurting the state, Stephen Lyons wrote in a recent essay in High Country News, a Western weekly. ``That isolation has led to xenophobia, a fear of strangers or, perhaps more precisely, a fear of anyone not white.'' Others say Idaho is more tolerant than it is portrayed outside the state, but that it could use a second political party, if only to inject some new ideas into public policy. A retired state Supreme Court justice, Bob Huntley, just announced he would run for governor as a Democrat this year. His main reason, he said, was that he believed Idaho was suffering from the lack of a two-party system. But beyond political philosophies, some experts say Idaho, in limiting welfare benefits while expanding prisons, is simply making a bad investment for taxpayers. ``There are good reasons for building prisons, but our one solution to everything -- drugs, alcohol abuse, minor offenses -- is prison, and that is simply not cost-effective,'' said Professor Robert Marsh, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at Boise State University. In 1996, the last full year for figures, 78 percent of the people Idaho sent to prison were non-violent offenders -- more than 50 percent higher than the national average. This despite the fact that Idaho's overall crime rate ranks it in the lower fifth among states. The state is now spending $200 million to build a new, privately operated prison for 1,250 inmates. But its spending for the poor totals only about $15 million a year, at the bottom among all states. A number of researchers and educators from Idaho have joined national critics in arguing that the state's investment in welfare and early child education is too low. One recent study, financed by the state, found that nearly 60 percent of fourth-graders were reading at a level below their grade. Another survey echoed national studies in establishing a direct link between failing grades for poor children by the fourth grade and the likelihood that they will go on to commit crimes as a juvenile or young adult. ``The message our state seems to be sending is that if you're going to be a kid, don't be a kid in Idaho,'' said Robert Barr, dean of the College of Education at Boise State University. ``I have tried to convey to the state Legislature the most chilling information that I've ever seen,'' Barr said. ``If a child is poor, is held back at least once and is not reading at grade level, you can predict with better than 90 percent success that the child will never graduate from high school and may end being a burden on the system, in prison or elsewhere.''