Social Safety Nets Beyond Frayed, as States Slash Budgets

Stephen Franklin

Families search through donated shoes at a distribution site for Feed The Children in May 2009 in Hoffman Estates, Ill. Feed The Children is an international relief organization that has been using truck caravans to help communities in the U.S. hit by the current economic crisis.

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They fret about less money for mental health programs, and health insurance for needy children in California.

In Connecticut, they worry about welfare recipients who will no longer get a helping hand in finding work from a special state program.

Across the country, child-care centers are going without, mental health counseling for the poor is shrinking away, food pantries are running short, and homeless shelters turn more people away every day — leading some to open tent camps.

Cuts forced by fragile state budgets are eating away at the already flimsy safety net for the nation’s poor and working poor.

But the suffering of those truly on society’s margins seems lost in the shouting about who needs what now. The problem is, the poor need more than a temporary financial boost, more than a good stove for the winter and a highway construction job for a few months.

They need basic help in surviving, and then a ladder out of the poverty that has overcome them. They are stuck in a far deeper hole than the million of jobless who are counting on the economy to come to life again before they run out of benefits.

Making matters worse has been the growth in the ranks of some of the most vulnerable.

The number of children living below the poverty level, for example, climbed from 1.4 million in 1995 to 2.4 million in 2005, a 75 percent increase, according to a recent study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

A major reason for the growth in children living in deep poverty, according to the study, has been the shrinking financial protection offered by welfare.

Similarly, the state and federal welfare umbrella now offers far less protection for individuals and childless couples who have run out of unemployment benefits, the study notes.

So keep these people in mind when you hear talk about the temporary decisions to cut state spending for the agencies that serve the needy. They are so far down they need more than a temporary lift upward.

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A former labor writer for the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Franklin is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign School of Labor and Employment Relations.

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