Social Workers and the Politics of Budget Cuts

*I’m still on maternity leave and, so, revising and republishing some of my favorite posts from the past two years. This particular post jumped out at me; our Kansas state budget, of course, is in just about the same place, in terms of the depth of cuts on the table, as it was when this originally ran in 2009 and, now, there’s a somewhat surreal conversation about the federal deficit, and how to reduce it (a conversation which, in Congress, centers almost entirely around spending cuts and fiscal chicanery). Social workers still need a louder and more outraged voice about the options that we’re walking away from, and about the very real implications of those default decisions. In the intervening two years, the lives of those we serve have mostly gotten harder, and that means that our resolve must, too.

The economy is bad. It is. And that means that some pain, including not only that which is visited upon the people we serve directly but also that endured by our nonprofit organizations, is inevitable.

But inevitability is vastly overstated.

Social workers run the risk, I believe, of depoliticizing the current battle over investment in our nation’s future and commitment to the most vulnerable by brushing away important questions and needed outrage with a white-washed, ‘the economy is really bad’ explanation that, really, doesn’t explain anything.

There is nothing inevitable about budget cuts when state revenues are declining. There are, obviously, other alternatives–raising taxes chief among them–and the fact that those alternatives are not chosen says a lot more about the political decisions being made (and the people making them) than it does about the state of the economy. We could be choosing to invest more heavily in programs for people living in poverty (which would make sense because more people are poor), in education (because it’s the most direct link to future economic development), in infrastructure (because it puts people to work while meeting our needs).

And the fact that we’re not, that we’re slashing spending in ways that mean longer waiting lists for Medicaid waivers, more kids in every classroom, less outreach for children’s health care, fewer supports for vulnerable seniors–that is a fact that is much more political than economic.

So the next time that you find yourself (or a colleague) bemoaning cuts and their impact and then blaming that vague nemesis–the economy–ask instead about the choices that determined, when presented with a couple of different forks in the road, which one to take. Find out who is responsible for choosing that path, and hold them accountable. Use it as an example that our clients can understand: tough times come into everyone’s (and every state’s) lives, and when they do, we have choices. We can’t control the situations in which we find ourselves, but we can control how we respond. And, when we respond in ways that are harmful to others, there will be consequences.

2 responses to “Social Workers and the Politics of Budget Cuts

  1. I heard a Kathy Greenlee say earlier this year that she is often asked by legislators and others what should be cut in the state Dept. on Aging to save money. Her response is that they’re asking the wrong question. Instead states should be asking, “Where should we invest in order to save money?” Of course, I don’t think the question should center on saving dollars (“Where should we invest in order to create the healthiest and strongest communities?”), but even if it does, budget cuts usually result in higher long term costs…both economic and human.

    Thanks for the reminder!

    • melindaklewis

      Absolutely–I’ve been doing reading on other recessions, and advocacy within them, in preparation for a workshop I’m doing this fall, and it helps to put things in perspective. I mean, the Great Depression gave us Social Security, the cornerstone of our social insurance program and single-handedly responsible for lifting millions of children (whose parents are disabled or deceased) and seniors out of poverty; and we got Medicaid and Food Stamps during an ugly time (although not as bad economically)–the failing Vietnam War and the national turmoil around it. Clearly, what we get has a lot more to do with what we demand and what we have the political power to win, not what the ‘economic winds’ blow our way. Thanks for sharing that quote, Moira. You are always so thoughtful in your reflections and are such an asset as a student–I can’t wait to see all that you accomplish as a practitioner!

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