Labor's Voice for Change (28) April 21, 2009

States Are Under Pressure to Shred
Safety Net’ for the Sick and Elderly

By Harry Kelber

In at least 34 states, programs that provide a “safety net” for millions of poor, needy people have been slashed, because of sharp declines in revenue, leading to deep budget cuts that impact heavily on the sick, homeless and elderly, as well as poor children, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a private research group in Washington.

While President Obama’s $787 billion stimulus package has been helpful in providing large amounts of money for unemployment insurance, education, food stamps and other programs, the allotments to the states cover only about 40 percent of the losses in their revenue With a serious shortage for social spending, the problem for state authorities is which programs to save and which to cut — and by how much.

Health care represents difficult choices for the state’s decision-makers. How much should they spend on the use of the latest medical technology or on increasing the number of home-care workers, who take care of the sick, aged and disabled? Can they keep the child welfare program intact, while eliminating the dental benefit for adults on Medicaid?

The consequences of these decisions can mean that impoverished families will receive less assistance than when the country had a prosperous economy. In some states where the budget deficit is huge, ripping the safety net may be an acceptable, if unpleasant, solution.

Stories abound in the media of what happens to poor people who are denied public assistance. Examples: In Arizona, some 1,000 elderly people are struggling without home-care aides to help them with bathing, housekeeping and trips to the doctor. A 75-year-old woman, who uses a wheelchair because of a paralyzed leg, has been on a waiting list for home aid for a year. Funding for programs to prevent child abuse in troubled families has been significantly cut in some states.

Do Unions Have a Moral Responsibility to Help the Poor?

The Obama administration has focused on stabilizing the nation’s financial system, using hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out the big banks and investment institutions of Wall Street. But apparently, it has not done enough to help America’s middle class. Its $787 billion stimulus package has done comparatively little to relieve the plight of the poor.

Getting the banks to increase their loans does nothing for impoverished families that do not have collateral for a loan, and the many who do not even have a bank account. Giving them a “tax break” offers no benefit to workers who do not earn enough to pay taxes.

The Obama administration is committed to providing the banks and the Wall Street community with whatever funds they need to regain their financial health. Why can’t it do the same for workers who are struggling to maintain a middle-class lifestyle? Why won’t it do more to relieve the hardships of the poor, sick and elderly?

Organized labor, which has always prided itself as the champion of working people, must live up to its responsibilities to help working people, specially when they are in distress. We suggest that every AFL-CIO-affiliated Central Labor Council appoint an Oversight Committee to see that workers in their state are treated fairly in the distribution of stimulus money.

And in fairness, shouldn’t we ask for a second stimulus package?

Article 29 of “Labor’s Voice for Change” will be posted on Thursday, April 23.