November 27, 2011 in City

With more budget cuts in offing, entire aid programs vulnerable

The Spokesman-Review
 
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Washington is not alone in proposing deep cuts to programs that help the state’s poorest residents.

And more than the poor stand to suffer as legislators start meeting Monday to deal with a $2 billion shortfall in the state’s budget. Other proposed cuts would affect education, public safety, natural resources and prisons.

But advocates say low-income people in Washington stand to take particularly hard hits, partly because of mandates that protect other programs – and partly because cuts to social-service programs face less resistance.

“Programs for the poor are often the first on the chopping block, because they’re an easy target,” said Jennifer Sherman, an assistant professor at Washington State University Tri-Cities who researches poverty issues.

Poor people don’t hire lobbyists. They don’t vote in great numbers.

“But they’re the ones, in my opinion, who need protection the most,” Sherman said. “Cutting programs for the poor is literally often a matter of life and death.”

The refrain is growing louder among social-service providers and others who work with low-income residents: If legislators enact cuts proposed in Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget, the effects on low-income residents will be devastating.

Those residents represent the same population served by the Christmas Bureau, an annual charity paid for by newspaper readers’ donations to the Christmas Fund. While there’s no income requirement to receive grocery vouchers, toys and books at the bureau, the average monthly income of households served in 2010 was $1,003.

Gregoire’s budget proposes cuts to programs that provide health care, food and shelter assistance for the poor. In total, it cuts more than $690 million from health and human services programs.

It would end the Basic Health Plan, which provides subsidized health care, and the Disability Lifeline program, which provides coverage for people who can’t work. It would reduce drug coverage for Medicaid recipients.

The budget would end the state food-assistance program, which benefits people not served by the federal program.

It would reduce funding to subsidize child care while parents work and for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

‘Last hope’

What makes the cuts so potentially difficult, advocates say, is that they’d affect people already teetering, as Spokane’s Sister Ann Pizelo said, “on the edge of survival.”

Pizelo directs Our Place, which provides food, clothing and other services in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood.

“We pretty much are overwhelmed” by the prospect of the cuts, Pizelo said. “That’s pretty much all we talk about – how are we going to help people” during this “crisis time.”

Ninety-three percent of Our Place’s clients are unemployed, said Tracie Swanson, its development director. They live on public programs including TANF and lifeline grants. Many have physical or mental disabilities.

And people are seeking help who haven’t before. In October, Our Place served 724 families. Of those, 108 had never been there before.

Considering the options before them, Pizelo said, legislators should prioritize providing shelter, food and medical care for people who can’t provide for themselves. “These are the basic needs of survival.”

The Salvation Army of Spokane stands to lose state funding to distribute rent and utility assistance to low-income people suffering medical problems, Capt. Kyle Smith said. Recipients might be undergoing chemotherapy or recovering from drug addiction.

“This is their last hope,” Smith said. “I’ve seen people walking out crying because they don’t qualify.”

Also at risk is Sally’s House, the Salvation Army’s emergency foster shelter for children who’ve been abused or neglected. When someone’s drowning, you don’t ask questions about their moral qualifications or history or how they got to be drowning – you just save them, Smith said. Poor people in Washington are drowning, he said.

“We as a society are saying, ‘You know, we’re not going to save them,’ ” Smith said. “That’s what this budget is saying, when I look at it.”

Legislators’ task

Gregoire is proposing an “all-cuts” budget. But last week she also proposed a half-cent, three-year sales-tax increase to stem the cuts. The $500 million raised each year would mostly go toward education, but it also would benefit some public-safety and social-service programs.

State Rep. Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat, said he’d support Gregoire’s tax pitch, which asks legislators to send the decision to voters. Billig generally opposes sales tax increases, because they’re regressive, or impose the greatest burden on the poor, he said.

“But nothing is as regressive as these devastating cuts to programs,” Billig said.

Saving programs that help low-income people makes fiscal sense, he said, calling them “good investments.”

Each dollar spent on drug and alcohol counseling, for example, saves $7 or $8 later in corrections and other costs, Billig said.

State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, a Spokane Republican who has announced he’ll run for U.S. Senate next year, said legislators shouldn’t limit themselves to options presented by the governor.

“There are a lot more options available to the state,” he said.

Before cutting essential services for people at the “bottom of the social safety net,” he said, “we need to look at streamlining government.”

That includes reducing spending on “nonessential” services, he said, citing a measure he sponsored to consolidate the state’s information technology departments. Tort reform would reduce state spending on lawsuits, he added, and changes to reporting requirements imposed on businesses and nonprofit organizations would cut their costs.

Only after arriving at a more “sustainable” budget and making the state more welcoming to business should legislators consider whether it needs to raise more revenue, Baumgartner said.

Residents at risk

Without knowing the outcome of the Legislature’s special session, social service providers and advocates for the poor are looking ahead to a day when residents living on the edge teeter and fall.

When you lose the last of your resources, your options for recourse depend largely on where you live – and who you know, said Sherman, the WSU Tri-Cities poverty researcher.

The smaller your community, the smaller your safety net. If you live in a rural area and you lose food assistance, you’re less likely to have access to a quality food bank.

When people lose housing assistance, they tend to double up, moving in with friends or into crowded, substandard housing. “The folks who are the most socially isolated, they’re the ones who are most likely to end up in shelters or on the streets,” Sherman said.

But while food banks and shelters help many people, there’s no private-sector equivalent for people who don’t have access to health care, Sherman noted. And low-income people are more likely to suffer from chronic health problems.

That’s because poverty leads to poor health, as poor people are more likely to live in unsafe conditions on unhealthy diets, suffer more stress and get less exercise, Sherman said. And poor health causes poverty, as the high cost of care bankrupts patients.

Eliminating subsidized health care would be “disastrous,” Sherman said.

“If you need dialysis and you can’t get it, what are you gonna do?” she said. “Probably rely on the emergency rooms that’ll take you, but to be honest a lot of the time you’re not going to make it.”

Surviving, with help

Spokane residents Michael and Karrina Connor and their month-old son, Michael Andrew, know what it’s like to live on the edge. The family visited Our Place last week  to pick up donated food and clothing.

Formerly homeless, the couple got jobs cleaning mortar off bricks at a Spokane building supply store. At 6 cents a brick, they saved enough for an apartment.

Michael Connor, 29, said he has bipolar disorder. He lost his medical coverage through the state over the summer. He’d qualified for Disability Lifeline benefits, formerly known as General Assistance for the Unemployable, but Karrina had gotten a job whose wages were high enough to make him ineligible, he said. They can’t afford private insurance.

That means Michael Connor lost access to counseling for his bipolar disorder. It’s thanks to reduced prices at the Community Health Association of Spokane that he can afford his medication.

Now Michael does seasonal landscaping work and Karrina, 33, is on maternity leave. She’ll lose her health coverage soon – the state program that covered her during her pregnancy ends shortly after recipients’ babies are born. She’s hoping to get a gallbladder condition checked first. They said their son’s health care will be covered by the state.

As for their own medical needs, “We don’t have any idea what to do,” Michael Connor said, other than “just deal with the pain or sickness and hope to get through it.” If that doesn’t work, he said, they’ll go to an emergency room.

Food stamps help them survive, the Connors said. Being able to walk into a grocery store and buy the food they want gives them an emotional boost as well, they said.

“We don’t have money in our pockets, but you can feel like a normal citizen,” Michael Connor said.


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