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Cutting Social Programs No Longer Taboo

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Budget woes, changing public attitudes leave anti-poverty programs vulnerable

By Chris Levister –

Kenya Ruffin was armed with a rainbow of graphs and pie charts, ready to make her case against cutting California’s Healthy Families Program at a public forum in Victorville in March. She was barely a minute into her prepared remarks when the yelling started. The first heckler shouted his doubts about the single mother’s competency as a parent. “If you can’t take care of your kids, don’t have them,” he said.

“Get a job. Get an education, the spending party is over lady,” boomed another heckler. “We’ve got to cut spending. Cutting the welfare parasites is the best place to start,” said a retired business owner from the rear of the school gymnasium.

From there, the event sponsored by a right leaning advocacy group was filled with a constant stream of boos and questioners in the crowd of 200 shouting over each other.

Six minutes into the forum speakers couldn't be heard over the shouting on both sides. Ruffin tried to continue but then stood quietly for a minute smiling, her hands clasped together in front.

“I was shocked by the intolerance and lack of respect,” she said following the event. “I remember when people could engage in civilized dialogue. They cared about the welfare of all of our children. That’s changing.”

In 2008 when Ruffin’s youngest daughter Inya, was born with cerebral palsy requiring hyperbaric oxygen therapy she wasn’t prepared for all of the health challenges she would face.

From emergency trips to the doctor to almost monthly hospital stays, Kenya said, she leaned heavily on the safety net provided under San Bernardino County Child and Family Services to help make it through.

She and her two daughters participate in the Healthy Families program, which provides support and resources to firsttime parents and young families.

Despite her best efforts, her family’s healthcare future is becoming increasingly difficult as a new breed of lawmakers and the public debate unprecedented cuts to once sacred social programs.

As state lawmakers, Congress and the White House debate cutting billions of dollars from their budgets, there's little talk about protecting the social safety net, those government programs intended to help the poor and disadvantaged. That's very different from an earlier budget battle, when President Ronald Reagan came into office 30 years ago.

Reagan promised to drastically reduce the size of government, but he also said there were limits. In his first address to Congress, he said that his new budget would not hurt the truly needy.

"The poverty-stricken, the disabled, the elderly, all those with true need — can rest assured that the social safety net of programs they depend on are exempt from any cuts," he said.

It turned out that wasn't completely true — the Reagan budget cut food stamps, welfare and Medicaid.

"But it's interesting that they felt politically they had to say that," says Robert Greenstein, head of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

And indeed, the need to preserve the social safety net was a major theme throughout the 1981 budget debates.

Greenstein thinks the tone in the early 1980s was much different from what it is today. He says one reason is that "the Republicans in Congress now are well to the right of Republicans like Bob Dole or Howard Baker in the '80s."

Dole and Baker were Senate leaders more inclined to support government spending for the poor. In fact, Dole was among the strongest congressional backers of food stamps.

Today's Republicans — especially those elected in November 2010 — are primarily focused on reducing the size of government.

Healthy Families and CalWorks are among those prized California programs once viewed as off limits to the budget ax.

No longer says Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center. He thinks part of that is due to the bad economy, which has many people feeling squeezed. People are looking under every stone to reduce costs.

This also reflects a change in public attitudes. “There's a greater disposition to see the role of government reduced and less support for an activist government than there was back in 1981 when Ronald Reagan first took office,” Kohut says.

Although he adds that people favor cutting the budget until they're asked about specific programs. Then “they say 'Uhhhhhhhhh. I'm not so sure we want to see that cut,'” he says.

The California Budget Project released a report ahead of the Governor Jerry Brown’s May budget revise Tuesday – that says the total number of children enrolled in the Healthy Families Program (HFP) has dropped by more than 50,000 since July 2009, said Jean Ross, executive director of the advocacy group.

The group’s findings show San Bernardino County lost 5,521 children, an 8.1 percent change from July 2009 to March 2011. During the same time HFP enrollment in Riverside County dropped 4.4 percent a loss of 3,477 children.

Brown's revised budget plan assumes that the state will not receive $1 billion from local First 5 commissions because of pending lawsuits. The plan includes a $1 billion cut in CalWorks, the state’s welfare to work program. This includes an 8 percent reduction in benefits.

Brown had hoped the concessions would help secure Republican support to resolve the most contentious budget issues that remain: taxes.

To date those concession efforts have largely failed. Last week, Republicans in the Assembly claiming “we’ve become a state of entitlements” proposed an additional series of cuts to programs for the needy in order to close the lingering $15.4 billion projected budget deficit. GOP lawmakers called their proposal a compromise that saves programs like law enforcement and education in lieu of tax increases.

Meanwhile, despite a $6.6 billion surge in revenue from a recovering economy, the governor said Monday as he unveiled a revised budget, more cuts will be needed if higher levies aren’t extended.

Inland providers are bracing for the worst. San Bernardino county spokesman David Wert said the series of cuts will have a negative impact on 8,000 CalWorks cases which represents 31 percent of all child-only cases.

He said a time limit reduction from 60 months to 40 months will immediately expel 3,600 families from CalWorks and an additional 375 per month effective July 1.

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