The prevailing justifications used for cuts to social services and education is that wise and careful spending is critical at this point, that we can’t keep spending money that we don’t have and that we will be pushing our current debt on to future generations. All of these points are good ones, but what is missing from the analysis is the unspoken option of increasing revenue sources, the long-term cost-effectiveness of investment in various programs, and the balance of priorities in the budget process.
It is true that education and community benefit programs do cost money, and it is also true that these programs help to implement the work of government and address issues that impact the overall health of the community. They are investments that pay off down the road, examples include but are not limited to: 1) senior centers that enable the elderly to lead productive, active lives and also provide day care so that families can remain employed knowing their loved ones are safe, 2) legal aid centers which enable the poor to have their day in court, a deeply held American value, 3) housing organizations that support the belief that everyone who “works hard and follows the rules” should have a decent place to live, and 4) organizations that provide assistance, support and intervention to victims of crime, such as domestic violence and sexual assault, while also advocating to change public attitudes and increase accountability. Knowing the accomplishments of these programs with limited resources compels a budget strategy that would make supporting them as high a priority as pension plans, medical assistance, corrections and debt service, which are the prevailing priorities during the current budget negotiations.
I would characterize the work of community benefit organizations as critical, necessary and in some cases lifesaving. I will use my place of work, as an example. I have dedicated my career to anti-domestic violence work. After 28 years, I am of the opinion that most if not all of the ills in this world can be traced to the lessons learned in childhood, particularly in the home. There is a direct connection between the power and control dynamics in an abusive home and the way conflict plays out in the world. The latter just impacts more people throughout a larger area.
During the past 3 years, demand for services has increased by 13%, education/trainings to the community have increased by 45% during the past 2 years, and last year we were able to provide shelter to only 10% of those requesting it. In addition according to the Pa. Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Bucks County, the Lt. Governor’s home, is tied for 3rd in the state for domestic violence homicides in 2011 (right behind Philadelphia and Allegheny counties).
Most of the deaths involved people who were outside of any system and therefore didn’t have good information in the time of crisis. In response to this reality, we developed and implemented proactive prevention programs during the past year to address this gap by extending our community outreach. Unfortunately, in the midst of implementing these groundbreaking and life-saving initiatives we have just had to lay off 25% of our staff. Why? Because despite successfully increasing our non-government sources of income by 19% during the past 4 years, using the most successful fundraising techniques, the continued cut-backs in government funding accelerated more quickly. The impact is that while the organization is fiscally sound, these cutbacks reduce our capacity to get good information to those that desperately need it.
Concerns are expressed about the structural deficit that is inherent in continuing to spend more than we have at the state, county and local level. I agree with that concern, especially if spending sparingly is the single strategy being used. Identifying additional sources of income seems to be a missing strategy.
Government officials only seem to see the necessity of spending increases for the welfare of business, while cutting programs that build a strong community of educated, safe, healthy people. Political leaders give lip service to closing tax loop-holes that benefit the wealthy and very profitable businesses but never get around to really doing it.
I am concerned about the structural deficit in prioritizing corrections over education and programs that address early intervention and prevention (from domestic violence to employment programs to health care for our families), especially in this time of high unemployment. By not prioritizing these areas up front, we guarantee that more and more high-cost prisons will be needed in the future. That strategy assures that we will leave our problems for future generations to solve.
The urgency of our fiscal condition and investing in community benefit organizations falls well outside partisan politics. A careful balanced approach that incorporates generating income, as well as balancing the budget, while prioritizing the safety and well-being of our families is needed to assure that problems will be resolved for future generations in a fair holistic way that benefits all. We need to cross the aisle and honor the truths in each position, putting aside partisan differences for the well-being of the greatest number of citizens both now and in the future, working towards a structural benefit for all.
Donna J. Byrne