THE NATION is now officially in a recession, and Washington state—with the country's highest unemployment rate—leads the way.
The ability of government to help people hit by hard times looks very different than it did during the last major recession 20 years ago. The last decade's boom times provided cover for government to cut back social services in many areas. Now city, county, and state governments are facing fiscal crises that render them unable to fund even this tattered safety net. The result will be that many more people will fall through the net's holes during this recession than the last one.
Some time in the next two weeks, Gov. Gary Locke will unveil his proposals to make up a projected shortfall of $1.25 billion in a biennial general fund budget of $22.8 billion that the state Legislature passed only last June. The state is where the present budget crunch has hit hardest so far; the latest state revenue projections, released Nov. 20, dropped a staggering $813 million from prior forecasts. While Locke's specific budget proposals have not been finalized, the Democratic executive has chosen to focus almost exclusively on budget cuts and, unlike former Republican Gov. John Spellman during the 1981-82 recession, has ruled out tax increases as a way to help bridge the gap.
Even before the release of the latest grim figures, Locke had asked each of the state's agencies, except basic education, to propose how they would cut 15 percent from their 2003 budgets. The state agencies proposed $578 million in cuts, over 80 percent of them coming from the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). In discussing his response to the revenue shortfall, Locke promised, "[b]asic education and the most vulnerable people in state care will be protected." But activists who work with those vulnerable populations aren't buying it.
"The question shouldn't be what to cut and what to save, but how to fund what society needs," says Jon Gould, community action director for the Children's Alliance. "All of these programs were put in place because they serve vulnerable people." Jean Colman, longtime director of Seattle's Welfare Rights Organizing Coalition, agrees. "They can't close that one billion dollar hole on the backs of poor people. It's going to hurt families. To summarily take [raising taxes] off the table, to me, is irresponsible."
The proposed DSHS cuts alone affect more than 80 programs, a number of which are slated for outright elimination. The biggest of these is the General Assistance-Unemployable (GA-U) program, which provides income and medical care for 20,000 adults statewide. Both Colman and Gould note that some General Assistance recipients may be eligible to receive federal Social Security benefits. But, says Gould, that is not going to be a solution for all of them. "For these people, there's nowhere else to go. These are single adults without dependents. There is no medical coverage for them; the homeless shelters are full. The impact will be seen directly in homeless shelters and emergency rooms." Colman suspects that General Assistance's loss "may have a disproportionate impact on low-income women—women who raised families, weren't in the work force, [and aged] 45 to 50. They have no job skills and are too young for elderly services."
The list of additional proposed state cuts is staggering. Most notably, it includes: most family support for the developmentally disabled; COBRA health insurance for HIV/AIDS patients; state funding for the Refugee Assistance Program; medical care for legal immigrant families; elimination of drug and alcohol treatment for welfare recipients; and proposed reductions for adult dental care, maternity support, prescription drug payments, nursing home reimbursements, youth shelters, emergency food and shelter assistance, and aid to counties for social and health programs.
King County also faces an enormous budget shortfall, but because past county budgets already focused cuts largely among social services, not much new is slated for elimination this year. Exceptions include the county's mental-health services and its child-care subsidy program, which helps families not eligible for the state program. The state program, also, faces deep cuts: Between changes in eligibility requirements and increased co-pays, an estimated 50,000 families will lose state child-care services.
A surprising number of the state cuts, Gould notes, would affect children and families; for example, the state's maternity support services for high-risk pregnancies are used by about 50,000 mothers a year. Locke is almost certain to propose capping enrollment in the state's version of the Children's Health Insurance Program.
Nationally, the program has been adding about 1 million low-income children a year. When President Bush finally offered recently to create a new program of health-care coverage for newly unemployed workers, he lifted the $11 billion needed for the new program out of the federal Children's Health Insurance Program budget. "They're taking money from one group of low- income people to give to another group," says Colman. "That's where Congress needs to step in and stop the tax breaks."
Gould says it's not only the federal government that is making a bad situation worse. "The Legislature and the governor haven't framed the issue the way we think it should be framed. That's a question of revenue; it leads to looking at the taxes that we've given away when times were good." He adds, "We disagree with the premise that we have to choose between which people are most needy."