Unseen victims

Our view: The budget crisis is real, but what gets lost in abstract talk about spending and revenues is that the poor are hit hardest by cuts in state agencies

March 04, 2009

In tough economic times, lawmakers must make difficult choices about how to allocate resources and rein in spending. But too often, the brunt of the pain falls on the most vulnerable members of society as cuts in social services and the agencies that administer them not only can't keep up with rising needs but find themselves falling further and further behind. In an economy where unemployment is still climbing, businesses are shutting their doors and the foreclosure crisis keeps unfolding, the people hit hardest by Maryland's budget crunch are the state's poorest residents.

At the state Department of Human Resources, for example, waiting lines are longer, caseworkers are stretched to the limit and many people end up being denied benefits because there simply aren't enough staff members to process all the claims coming in. The agency is responsible for the food stamp program; cash assistance to the elderly, indigent and disabled; and child protective services. But under a statewide hiring freeze that began eight years ago, DHR has lost hundreds of staff positions, leaving the remaining workers unable to carry out all the duties assigned to them.

So what happens? Routine tasks that used to take hours or days - such as recertifying clients for benefits they've already qualified for - now take weeks or even months to complete. Crucial documents get misplaced or disappear. Legal Aid attorneys who advocate on behalf of the poor say offices in Towson and the city that once had 20 clerical workers distributing food stamps now have 10 or less, and instead of 50 clients per caseworker, staffers have to deal with 200 or more. DHR officials aren't disputing that reality. To give priority to abused or neglected children, the agency has stopped accepting new poor, elderly and disabled adults who would receive mental health treatment, vocational rehabilitation and in-home assistance through the agency. Most people would agree that services for vulnerable children should be a priority in times of great economic uncertainty. But the price for that is doing even less for needy adults, and when you cut off people who already have so little, they can fall into dire straits.

Like the current economic downturn, this problem has been a long time in the making. The attrition at DHR started under Gov. Parris N. Glendening and has continued ever since. From 2001 to 2008, DHR lost 1,333 full-time positions, according to figures provided by the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute. Meanwhile, the Transportation Department lost just 347 and the Maryland State Police 133, while juvenile services and public safety each gained 174, the judiciary rose by 635 and higher education ballooned by 3,363.

The point isn't that these departments shouldn't grow. It's that their growth has been at the expense of agencies that serve Maryland's neediest residents, leaving them unable to fulfill their basic mission.

The burden of tough times should be shared equally, not thrust upon the state's most vulnerable merely because they are invisible to almost everyone except the harried social workers trying to help them.

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