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Guest opinion: Safety net has frayed enough

During this holiday season, the front page of The Spokesman-Review contains daily stories of the real-life impacts of the proposed state budget cuts on members of our community. These realities were reinforced through a Thanksgiving Day open letter to legislators and the community as a whole from 43 nonprofit organizations. This open letter urged our legislators to protect the vulnerable as they struggle to resolve yet another budget gap – this one reaching $2 billion. The nonprofit organizations emphasized that individuals in our community are already suffering as a result of the $10 billion in state budget cuts incurred since the economic crisis began.

The letter cites many sobering statistics about life for the vulnerable in Spokane. For example, requests for domestic violence services have increased 21 percent over the last three years; one-third of the homeless individuals in Spokane are children; and Second Harvest Food Bank has seen a 30 percent increase in requests for food assistance in the past two years.

We share their concern about how the cuts taken so far are affecting our neighbors, and how the deeper reductions yet to come could erode the fabric of our community. We are particularly concerned about the insufficient level of resources and services available for those in need. Even with the herculean efforts of the 43 organizations listed in the letter, countless needs are going unmet today.

Many, including some of our political leaders, would assert that churches and nonprofits should provide a safety net for vulnerable individuals. While we agree that serving that role is core to the mission of nonprofit organizations like the United Way and faith organizations, the gap is just too large.

Generous donations to the Spokane County United Way reached $4.8 million in 2010. This was an increase over 2009. This funding helps support many vital services such as investments in middle-school children, operations at a local food bank, and tax preparation services for seniors and low-income residents. The reality is that this funding isn’t close to making up for the expected losses that will hit our region as a result of state cuts. To put this in perspective, the funding raised by the United Ways is roughly the same amount as a proposed cut to just one of our area’s school districts – a $4.3 million reduction to the Central Valley School District’s levy equalization payments.

The faith community in our region is also doing its part, but with Washington’s low percentage of religious adherents (30 percent to 35 percent), and most congregations feeling the effects of the lingering economic recession, they too will have trouble meeting all needs.

Congregations in our community have shared that they are seeing rising numbers of homeless families, increasing numbers of people showing up for Thanksgiving dinner and other meal programs at churches, and lengthening lines at food and clothing banks.

It is important for people to be aware that government has traditionally served as the foundational funder for health and human services for children, the elderly and the developmentally disabled. This is a fundamental purpose for government, given the taxing power in order to put a basic safety net under vulnerable citizens. A study by the Washington Research Council found that in King County, home of large philanthropies, government funds 90 percent of health and human service programs, while private donations support just 10 percent.

Yes, our state budget deficit is daunting, and it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless. That said, Spokane is a community known for valuing children and the vulnerable. Time and time again, neighbors have stepped up to help neighbors by making financial contributions or volunteering their time. This commitment to community is why many of us choose to live here. We intend for this to continue.

It is a moral imperative that we join together and affirm this commitment, this deep value, in spite of these most difficult times. We urge you to pick up the phone and call your legislators at (800) 562-6000 and urge them to take steps to protect those in need, or contact the United Way or a faith-based organization to volunteer to help. Every action makes a difference.

Erica Hallock is the president and chief executive officer of the United Ways of Washington. The Rev. Martin D. Wells is bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Eastern Washington-Idaho Synod.


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