Paul Hopper
Paul Hopper [link]
31 August 2005 @ 11:55:00
article: Who'll lobby for social services?
Who'll lobby for social services?
Detroit Free Press [link]
by Mark Stutrud, President of Lutheran Social Services of Michigan
Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Whenever government faces an issue involving energy, the "oil lobby" is loud and clear about how it should be resolved.

When proposed laws involve education, the National Education Association makes its opinions known.

Transportation, telecommunication, banking, agriculture -- all have powerful voices speaking on their behalf.

Now both federal and state governments are developing budgets that will severely curtail services to some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society, and the debate is much too quiet.

Those who are least powerful have little voice in the public arena.

They are people like Catherine. She can't speak for herself because she has Alzheimer's disease. Otherwise, she would let the policymakers know that she lives on Social Security, that her family does not have the means to pay for her care, that she depends on Medicare and Medicaid. She would tell them that the workers at her nursing home earn so little they can barely keep their own families together.

They are people like Jason. He's only 2 years old, so he can't tell the politicians how his teenaged mother's drug habit was stronger than her maternal desire to care for her child. He can't tell them that he depends on the state to give him a safe and loving foster home or that he needs Medicaid to pay for his doctor visits. He doesn't know that his foster mother hasn't had a rate increase in several years or that she often spends her own money to make sure a growing boy has clothing and shoes.

People like Debby can't speak for themselves because they can't speak. Debby can't move without a wheelchair. She needs help to bathe, dress and eat. The caregivers in her group home know how she's feeling by her face and body language. But Debby doesn't realize that those caregivers often leave after just a few months because they earn less than a living wage.

These are not people with "special interests." What's special is their need for basic human services that most of us take for granted. They are the most vulnerable members of our communities. They cannot speak for themselves because they are too young, too ill or too disabled. They are the ones who fall through the holes when the social safety net is torn.

Because they can't speak for themselves, they are easily ignored. When budget priorities have to be made, it's easy to cut programs for people we do not see, whose voices we cannot hear.

There are legislative proposals to save dollars by setting time limits for people receiving Medicaid, regardless of their physical or mental health, or their employability. How can we expect people with multiple disabilities or families earning less than $8,000 a year to pay for health care on their own?

There are proposals that will freeze payments for the home- and community-based waivers that help frail seniors receive needed health care services in their homes instead of a nursing home. How does forcing people to leave their homes make us a healthier society?

There are proposals that will eliminate or freeze health care for a thousand Michigan teens who are "aging out" of foster care and forced to fend for themselves. This group is at very high risk of homelessness, unplanned pregnancy, substance abuse and imprisonment -- all of which cost more than up-front services to help them learn to be successful adults.

This is not the way an enlightened society should treat its most vulnerable citizens.

In some political circles there is a romantic notion that churches, private donors and foundations could, if they were so inclined, provide all the necessary financial support for a social safety net. This is a fallacy.

Generous donors do provide a small but powerful portion of the operating budget for Lutheran Social Services of Michigan and the other private nonprofit agencies that contract with state, federal and county governments. But while these contributions help enormously, the main responsibility for social service must lie with the government, working in partnership with nonprofit agencies.

I appeal to our legislators to listen to the stories of the thousands of Michigan residents who cannot speak for themselves.

Caring for our most vulnerable is not only a matter of charity, it is a matter of justice, and it should be one of our highest priorities.

Let's place Catherine, Jason and Debby at the top of the list when it comes to making budget decisions.