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Funding for social services in the US has never been as popular among policymakers as, say, funding the military. Since the New Deal, social service programs have been defunded, under- funded and privatized—and the people who use social services demonized by elected officials in the media. Currently the US government, through privatization and spending cuts, is looking to further cuts in funding to social services including housing, mental health care, HIV/AIDS services, services to the elderly, heating fuel assistance, and child welfare. The latest Republican budget calls for $4 trillion in spending cuts—the bulk of which come from social spending. Such cuts would pass the buck to already cash-strapped states and cities where even further cuts to services will be made.
Left Turn spoke with Brendan Phillips and Chani Geigle-Teller of Sisters of the Road in Portland, Oregon and with Jennifer Hadlock of Community Voices Heard in New York City to get their impressions on what’s at stake and what it will mean for the work they do and the people they serve.
Left Turn: What will cuts in government funding mean for the people in your organization and to the people your organization works with?
Sisters of the Road (SoR): Over 14% of Oregonians live below the federal poverty level. Over half a million people do not have the resources they need to afford housing, healthcare, education, transportation, and other basic needs (or, as we like to call them, human rights). Neither the Right nor the Left in Congress is asking how to save social services for working class people. Instead they are asking, “How much can we cut?” The deep cuts in public housing that go back to 1979 and continue as far out as we can see have created the national homelessness epidemic that overwhelms us now. Not only will we see massive increases in families and individuals living outside or in their cars but we will see some of them, especially the elderly and medically vulnerable, dying in the streets.
Community Voices Heard (CVH): Many of the cuts have already impacted people. Eliminating the Transitional Jobs funding at the state level means that people who had an alternative to WEP across the state may no longer have that. WEP is the Work Experience Program in which the state forces people receiving public assistance to work to receive their benefits.
The postponement of the 10% increase in cash assistance that was promised to people two years ago means that more people are going without. The cash assistance amount for a single person in 2009 was $68.50 every two weeks. That has now been raised two years in a row so it is $82.50 every two weeks. That has to pay for everything food stamps cannot, like toilet paper, laundry detergent, soap, electric bill, phone bill, diapers, and tampons. The increase was the first one in almost 20 years. The state receives $2.4 billion in federal TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) funds each year. This money is being spent on many things other than directly going to the families it is meant to help.
The city has 15,000 families with housing vouchers who are terrified by what will happen to them, wondering if they will end up back in the shelter system. The program always ended that way, which is why Community Voices Heard did not support this particular program. There is a tremendous need for rental assistance for low-income families in New York City and state. The lack of respect shown to families and the 37,000 people still in shelters by eliminating the only program and the incredibly widespread lack of housing security for 15,000 families with temporary vouchers is very stressful.
LT: What are your reflections on the current crisis facing social service funding in the US?
SoR: The most recent budget resolution that the House of Representatives passed would abolish Medicare and force deep cuts to Medicaid, food stamps and other services that disabled and working poor rely on to survive. Cuts to these services are the “collateral damage” of the growing number of foreign wars that our government continues to fund. Despite the crisis that so many of us feel, whether we are housed or unhoused, the House has an additional $4.2 trillion in tax breaks planned for the extremely wealthy and big corporations over the next decade.
CVH: The right wing and corporations are totally blaming the low-income people and the working class for the situation we are in, which is completely blaming the wrong people. This is a revenue crisis, not a budget crisis. If the wealthier people and corporations were paying their fair share and had been, we probably would not be in as deep a hole.
LT: What is the root of the problem from where you stand?
SoR: The United States government created the issue of homelessness. Neoliberalism, attacks on unions, welfare “reform,” mass imprisonment, high unemployment, and the privatization of public goods have all been powerful weapons used in the current war on the poor. Between 1978 and 1983, our nation’s affordable housing budget was cut by 77%. If we are going to take care of our neighbors, we must change our national priorities. We also have to push back at how the political establishment and the media both portray the problem as stemming from the “welfare state” as if huge deficits were caused by people experiencing poverty and programs intended to help them. Last I checked the poor in this country didn’t get a $700 billion (and counting…) bailout.
CVH: Capitalism on steroids. It’s been building since Ronald Reagan’s time. People are waking up to how bad it is. The manipulation of racism, sexism, homophobia, and classism that keeps everyone else fighting each other instead of fighting the real villains.
LT: How can people change the situation?
SoR: At Sisters, we take on the issue of homelessness and poverty at a root level, using an economic human rights social justice approach. We believe all “social service” agencies must demand this model of change at a local, state and federal level. We are working to build power with those most oppressed by the system. We demand that affordable housing funding levels be returned to levels comparable to 1978, that empty buildings be turned into housing and community spaces, that living conditions in existing affordable housing be improved and any demolitions be stopped immediately, and that the criminalization of people experiencing homelessness and poverty cease for good. We know that issues of safety and dignity around housing issues are intrinsically connected to issues of jobs, education, healthcare, and the environment. Together, as people committed to social justice, we can take back what is ours!
CVH: The government needs to change the tax structure and to enforce taxes on corporations and stop giving tax breaks (the real welfare) to corporations that are taking away worker protections, destroying the environment, and keeping people impoverished.Community Voices Heard
Community Voices Heard is a member organization of low-income people—predominantly women with experience being on welfare—that organizes to change systems that affect us such as welfare/workforce, public housing, and sustainable communities.
Since 1979, Sisters Of The Road has been an essential part of the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood of Portland, Oregon working to build authentic relationships and alleviate the hunger of isolation felt by people experiencing homelessness. Sisters Of The Road also works within the community, seeking systemic solutions that reach the roots of homelessness and poverty.