Hardly the strength to protest The news is bad for the state's poor

Jeff Singer

December 20, 1991|By Jeff Singer

ON THURSDAY the governor cried real tears; the following Tuesday he broke our hearts.

On Nov. 21, Governor Schaefer spoke with people who provide services to homeless people regarding the damage wrought by cutbacks in public programs in Maryland.

He is said to have shed tears over state workers losing their jobs, over local jurisdictions being forced to close libraries and fire stations, over drug treatment programs closing and over dramatic reductions in cash assistance to children and the disabled.

Just six days later, public officials from the executive and legislative branches, including Schaefer, announced at a press conference at the Department of Human Resources that welfare programs assisting children and the disabled would be restructured.

Although this restructuring coincides with the state's fiscal crisis, we have been assured that welfare reform is in no way a reaction to this problem. Rather, the behavior of the poor and sick does not meet the standards of public officials and must be changed.

As our communities bleed -- some faster, some slower -- our legislators insist that the electorate is not interested in corrective action. "More fat must be trimmed," they cry. "The people want to cut spending, not raise taxes." The governor had requested increased revenues, but he now reiterates that there is no support for this action among the voters. In his "fireside chat" the other night, he avoided the "T" word.

As the state is faced with escalating expenses -- record numbers of persons applying for unemployment insurance, medical assistance, food stamps, energy assistance and eviction assistance -- revenues are declining. The recession (or depression -- take your pick), the anachronistic and regressive structure of taxes and questionable public spending priorities now have forced public officials and elected representatives to choose between good public policy and expediency.

Good public policy identifies problems afflicting citizens and engages the citizenry in solving them. Expediency blames increased expenditures on the poor and unemployed who have no choice but to request help, and then reduces or eliminates assistance, predicting that those affected will not have the strength to protest. This is the curse which our officials have chosen.

Under the cloak of a "positive behavior initiative," assistance to indigent families and disabled individuals is being dramatically reduced. In order to receive 42 percent of the "standard of need," the amount required to live a minimally decent life, a family of three must be responsible for securing adequate health care, even though such services have become increasingly difficult to obtain because of earlier budget reductions.

The family must also pay rent on time, even though the average one-bedroom apartment in most jurisdictions rents for more than the $377 grant allotted a three-person household. In the absence of accomplishing these Sisyphean tasks, the family will subsist on 29 percent of the standard of need. In either case, we condemn these children and their parents to the meanest sort of existence.

For single, disabled adults the news is worse. Many, unemployed through no fault of their own, but rather because they are temporarily ill or injured, will have no access to legal sources of income. These neighbors, friends and relatives will be reduced to begging or stealing. The fortunate few who qualify for benefits will receive 58 percent of the standard of need, nearly enough to live six of every 10 days, or 2 1/2 weeks each month, or seven months of the year.

This is unconscionable and unnecessary. And most offensive is the pretense that this "restructuring" of welfare is designed to "improve" the lives of those affected.

As the experiences of programs like Health Care for the Homeless and the People's Community Health Center demonstrate, if people are offered accessible and adequate services, they will gladly use them. If people are meaningfully engaged in the decisions that shape their lives, they will act responsibly. If, for example, public officials were truly interested in promoting good health, they would devote sufficient resources to building a comprehensive and sensitive health-care system -- and it would be welcomed by its clients.

Rather, the intent of this restructuring is to reduce services to our most vulnerable (and least visible) citizens so as to avoid the courageous actions required to adopt a progressive and adequate system of taxation.

Recent and future reductions in public programs will exacerbate hunger. And homelessness. And drug addiction. And crime. Assuredly, suffering among the poor and sick is increasing. Ultimately, however, it is the quality of all of our lives that suffers. We are, after all, one community.

Jeff Singer is a social worker and a member of the board of directors of the Homeless Persons Representation Project. :

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