Tag Archives: budget

Better budget cutting

One of the most unnecessarily obvious things I’ve ever said here:

We’re in budget-cutting mode.

In Congress and in state legislatures and in local and county government and in nonprofit organizations.

And these exercises in austerity tend, for the most part, to follow the same script:

Cut, with only superficial attention to the acknowledged impact of the cuts, even when they are dire. Cuts, without considering other options to deal with deficits. Cuts, without much consideration of the long-term consequences.

Cuts, sometimes, just for cuts’ sake.

In Decisive, the discussion about how corporations should approach decision-making around budgets holds a lot of lessons for these budget-cutting frenzies, too.

And it makes me feel less alone, because I’ve been making some of these points for a long time.

  • We need to widen our options, including looking to other sources of revenue as a way out. As my students and I discuss every semester, and as families everywhere know from their own budgets (the only extent of the valid comparison between government budgets and household budgets, in my opinion): there are two ways to fill budget gaps, either by cutting expenses or by increasing income (or both).
  • We need to be strategic with cuts, where they must be made, instead of just making cuts across the board. All cuts are not created equal, and the ones that can be made with less infliction of pain are, in real ways, better than others.
  • And, the piece that I think is the most promising, applied to government budgets: we need to consider where we might cut even more deeply than we would otherwise need to in order to free up funds to invest in exciting new opportunities, including, of course, those that could generate better revenue potential (in government terms, economic growth).

What would that look like, in the context of government budget cutting, if we were thinking about growth and investment even alongside preparing for retrenchment and reduction? And what might be the economic impact, especially over the long haul, of that kind of foresight? And how could approaching budget cutting (and, for social workers, the critical task of staying at the table during the budget cutting negotiations, even when we loathe the process and the outcome) with this more intentional and strategic thinking?

It doesn’t mean that we’ll ever like the idea of retreating from our public commitments to the common welfare.

But maybe budget cutting can be better.

That sounds about right…

In preparation for the upcoming state legislative session(s)–they’ll be here before we know it!–I’ve been working with some folks who are reviewing policy trends at the state level, nationwide, to identify sources for these new initiatives, messages and strategies that can combat them, and (because I’m ever the optimist!) positive legislative agendas that can chart a way forward, at least in the states where I spend most of my time.

Looking back, especially over the last couple of years, I was reminded of a quote that I bookmarked in Backlash, a book that I read during my maternity leave.

Will Bunch, the author, referred to some of the legislative developments that took precedence in Congress over job creation priorities, as “impulsive acts of rage with imprimatur of law” (p. 164).

And, you know, that sounds about right.

I have an obvious interest, in particular, in the anti-immigrant attacks that are odious not only for their sheer meanness but also for their foolishness, given that almost all of them are completely unlawful (which, if you think about it, is really kind of ironic: What part of “illegal” do they not understand?). Of course, immigrants aren’t the only ones hurt by these attacks: do you want to be waiting in an emergency room in Arizona while personnel are trying to verify proof of citizenship? (SB 1405–I don’t make this stuff up) Or, what–you don’t carry your original birth certificate on you in case of a life-threatening injury? Wasteful, ill-conceived, hateful, ridiculous…and popular, in states with very different demographics and even political landscapes.

But, of course, immigrants were not the only ones targeted by vengeful acts of childish rage. One of my students wrote a paper this year pointing out how the attacks on women’s reproductive rights threaten our economic viability as a nation, given the link, worldwide, between women’s ability to control their own fertility and their labor market participation. People who work for a living, despite their overwhelming strength in numbers, were demonized, devalued, and, in terms of meaningful access to redress for grievances and some power to right tremendous imbalances in the workplace, nearly destroyed.

States went after children’s health insurance, early childhood education, and safety-net services for those with mental illness, in many cases while simultaneously purporting that businesses need tax “relief” because of their horrible struggles. (In this, of course, they were echoed by the U.S. House of Representatives, whose penchant for oil company incentives over children’s health even my 5-year-old called “wacky.” Indeed.)

We cannot afford to bemoan these policy proposals (some of which made it into law, and some of which were forestalled only by the courageous efforts of advocates and policymakers who deserve our support in November 2012). What we need to do, first, is call them what they are: distractions and assaults, not legitimate plans to address the challenges facing our states.

We need organizing strategies that address their root causes–the maligning of the “other” and the fault-finding borne of desperation and preyed upon by those with a horribly unjust way of seeing the world. We need coalitions that see a threat to one as a threat to all. We need an agenda that offers a promise of real solutions.

We need a new year, and a commitment to make great things happen in it.

For many women, every day is Labor Day

Today is Labor Day.

Instead of thinking about how Americans work for a living, though, I’ve been thinking more about women’s work, the unpaid kind.

This isn’t another discussion about gendered divisions of labor within our own household, though.

The reality is that, on a much larger scale, our society and societies around the world are predicated on women’s labor and the way in which it is used to compensate for the impossibilities of our modern lives, especially as governments withdraw from the social contracts that have provided the foundation for family supports necessitated by changes in women’s work and family patterns.

It goes like this: Women provide more care for older relatives when services funded by the Older Americans Act are cut. They have to spend more time in labor-intensive meal preparation and shopping when food prices go up. They have to scramble for decent childcare when subsidies are reduced. They have to worry about health care for themselves and their children when fiscal strains and outright attacks on women’s health become commonplace in the political discourse. They work more hours (at unequal pay) as male wages stagnate in the global economy.

In many ways, then, even budget cuts that look “gender-neutral” on their face fall the hardest on women, and exact the highest price from women whose labor will inevitably fill in the cracks that surface as services are slashed. In Kansas, we’ve cut public schools and expected mothers to make sure that their children are still making “adequate yearly progress” by spending more time on homework in the evenings. We’ve reduced funding for mental health centers, both necessitating more caregiving for those with serious mental illnesses and denying those who need mental health care (including low-income women) an affordable way to access it. We’ve slashed funding for the Department of Social and Rehabilitative Services, whose work includes many programs for children and families, but we’ll make sure to get out to investigate the mothers who aren’t adequately able to hold it all together without these supports.

This isn’t just about current American political currents and an ideological attack on women.

In my class on global poverty, my students learn about how research in economies undergoing structural adjustment programs finds that women’s unpaid labor increases significantly, in many of the same ways experienced by American women. Indeed, while the impacts on children, seniors, and other vulnerable populations are often dire, the evidence is clear that they are not nearly as catastrophic as they would be without women stepping up and, in many cases, sacrificing themselves.

Today, let’s not just celebrate the labor that has built this country, and the proud traditions of labor unions that continue to fight for every working person.

Let us remember the work that isn’t even dignified by being called such, the work that policymakers are subtly depending on when they target working families for budget cuts and service reductions, knowing that women will try to keep the sky from falling down.

And let us avoid the platitudes about “a woman’s work is never done”, and instead call this kind of accounting what it is: unjust, unsustainable, and unacceptable.

Women the world over deserve an “un-labor” day, and a movement that will deliver the public infrastructure and investments that will secure it.

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.

If we all gave like Sam…the abundance of a four-year-old


This thing was pretty heavy when he turned it in!

First of all, a slight disclaimer: Sam would want everyone to know that he is actually four and a HALF years old, not four.

It just made the title a little unwieldy.

With the legislative session in Kansas (and many other states) pretty recently concluded, and the damage wrought by the devastating budget cuts only beginning to take hold, and nonprofit organizations around the country struggling with the combination of public cuts and declines in private donations, I was struck by my oldest son’s reaction to a recent giving campaign at our church.

After the pastor explained that we were raising money for community development activities that help families living in poverty in the U.S. and around the world gain the skills and assets they need to live healthy and sustainable lives (livestock, small business capital, clean drinking water, core health services), he carefully assembled his cardboard bank, like kids have been doing for decades in the developed world.

And then he proceeded to put all of his allowance, saved from the past few weeks (not in anticipation of this, but just because he hadn’t gotten around to spending it yet) in the bank.

I reminded him that he gets $1 each week specifically to “share”, and that he could use that money instead of his spending money. And then I realized what I was doing and stopped talking.

He hadn’t forgotten about his “sharing” money. He was simply recognizing this giving opportunity as a good way to spend his allowance, more worthy than any of the ideas for personal consumption that he might have had. He gave joyfully, and rather effortlessly, with no angst over what could have been or what might come, but with an uncomplicated embrace of this chance to be part of something bigger than he.

I’m not suggesting that state legislatures, or even individual adult donors, give exactly like a preschooler. I mean, Sam’s basic needs are obviously all taken care of, and he gave out of truly disposable income that’s admittedly limited in many households and state capitals.

Except there is something to learn from his approach to money. It reflects a philosophy of abundance that’s not, really, unrealistic at all, but rather a hope-filled and somewhat self-fulfilling attitude that treats money as a tool (which it is), rather than something to be revered in its own right. He knows that he’ll get more satisfaction from hearing those coins clink in the big jar at church, and from hearing the stories about communities his money has helped, than he does from seeing the money sit on his dresser. And he knows that, quite honestly, other people need and can use that money much more than he.

And he’s right.

It reminded me, in a perhaps odd way, of a legislative forum I attended early in this session, where one of my favorite Kansas Senators lamented how we’re approaching the whole budget quandry from the “wrong end”, asking not “what are the functions that state government should perform, in order to achieve the prosperity and health and security and quality of life we desire (and deserve)”, but, instead, “how much money can we rather painlessly come up with, and how should we divide those limited dollars?”

Which question we ask does matter, and which question we choose will determine the kind of state government we end up with. The first looks at outcomes and believes that investments create abundance, while the latter approaches governing from a scarcity mentality and likely sows more scarcity in exchange.

And a similar cycle plays out in nonprofit organizations, too, even those that don’t rely on government funding. As donors, we more often give from what we think is left over, rather than starting with a question about what we want our donations to accomplish and what support we think the organizations to which we give really deserve.

Nonprofit organizations that depend on our gifts know that this is the giving reality, and they respond in kind: figuring out what they can possibly do with the money they can find, rather than setting goals and pursuing revenue that makes those dreams possible.

None of this is designed to berate nonprofit administrators, who confront nearly impossible choices these days when they do their books. Or even state legislators, who receive scarcity messages as they door-knock in their campaigns and find it difficult to imagine operating from another perspective.

It’s just a reminder, that perhaps we could build a better world, the world we all imagine if we allow ourselves that luxury, the world we know that we really deserve, if we approached the prospect of sharing, whether our public funds or our charitable contributions, with the gleeful abundance of a four-and-a-HALF-year old, who seems to know instinctively that, indeed, much is possible.

An Advocacy Agenda for the End of the Recession

Recession Lane by ZenTraveler, via Flickr Creative Commons

I’m no investment guru. OK, that’s a major understatement. I’m not even responsible for balancing my own checkbook.

But, I read. And, so, I know that the smartest investors and business leaders are planning NOW for the end of the recession, positioning themselves now to take advantage of the opportunities that will arise when the economic conditions improve. The advice, essentially, is that waiting until things get better to make your move will be too late, that we have to step out of our retrenchment, reactive mode and start thinking about what it is that we want and need to get out of the immediate post-recession period, and, much more importantly, how we’re going to get there.

So that has me thinking: what would a post-recession policy agenda look like for the social services? And what should we be doing today to position ourselves to make it a reality?

Becuase we get it. The economy is really bad now. State budgets are horrible. We have a terrible federal deficit and stimulus funds that will run out soon, and our local governments are absolutely in dire need of funds. Not-for-profit organizations are, in many cases, even worse off, because private donations have dropped as well. It’s all bad.

Until it’s not, anymore.

And, then, what are we going to do about it?

Unfortunately, history suggests that the answer may be, “not that much.” Too often, we have failed to demand what it is we know we deserve during the good times, and then we almost completely go away, or at least just fade to defense, during the bad times. I mean, think about it, when was the last time that a state legislature or U.S. Congress ever approached the social work profession and asked, “You know, we have some extra funds right now. What can we do for you?”

They don’t. Which is why we’ve got to be ready. Here, in no particular order, are my 5 things we should demand when this recession ends, and the 5 things we should be doing now to position ourselves to win them. No, 5 is not a magic number here; it was going to be 10, but, you know, I have 3 kids to raise!

Our advocacy agenda for the end of the recession:</strong>

  • Full restoration of cuts in social service and community development programs, and an index for inflation: In the past few months, several people have asked me what I view as the chances that programs will be restored to their full, pre-slash levels. My answer? Almost none, unless we demand it. Yet we cannot let ourselves forget that, even before this most recent round of assaults, services were woefully, and sometimes even dangerously, inadequate. We can’t allow that to happen again. Means-tested benefit levels should be automatically indexed for inflation, both at the individual level and for overall program growth, which will require:
  • Progressive tax policy: We will make a huge mistake if we head into a post-recession period ONLY talking about spending. The truth is that this recession would not have been nearly so painful if not for the widespread and often deep tax cuts at the state and federal levels in the late 1990s and early part of this decade. We need to restore vigor and progressivity to the tax structure, close tax loopholes, and build a strong foundation for the future, in times of feast and famine. And, yes, this means that nonprofits need to get on board with the Obama Administration’s proposed changes to deductible contributions for very high earners.
  • Full restoration of outreach and optional items within entitlement programs: States and localities, in particular, have been quite creative in how they have cut costs in this recession, and we must be vigilant in our post-crisis advocacy. One of the main ways that programs have been cut without being “cut” has been through reductions in outreach and some optional items, because, after all, if no one is applying for a given program, then we don’t have to spend any money on it, right? Only close connection to those most affected by these programs and their reductions can inform our advocacy priorities along these lines.
  • Increases in state institutional aid and federal financial aid for higher education: Of course we social workers are primarily concerned with social services funding–it’s what we do, what pays our bills, and what our clients need, every day. But we also need to be concerned about the future of our profession, and that requires attention to the dramatic rise in college tuition around the country. We can’t build the kind of social work profession we and our clients need if we don’t increase access to higher education.
  • A shift towards instititutional social welfare, starting with universal preschool programs: Enough of the safety net. Why are so many people falling in the first place? We need a transformation in favor of universal supports, and a good place to start is with universal preschool, especially given the increasing recognition of the importance of early childhood education. It’s only a small start–we need universal health care (STILL WAITING, folks), greater investments in housing, maternity and paternity policies, etc…but preschool kids are a good place to start.

    And the 5 things we need to be doing today to get there:

  • Relationships, relationships, relationships: I’m sure that my students are tired of hearing me say this, but it’s really true: relationships are pretty much everything when it comes to lobbying. We can’t afford to sit out this legislative session, or 2011, just because there may not be money to accomplish our ‘wish lists’. We need to be there, making our case, presenting data, organizing constituents, demonstrating that we will never, ever, ever go away.
  • Messaging of economic investment arguments: I firmly believe that we shouldn’t go overboard on the money-saving arguments–some of the things that we need to do are important despite their costs, quite honestly, and we also potentially weaken the moral strength of our arguments–but where we can make the claim, as I believe we often can, that investing in our nation’s human capital will make us better positioned for the next economic downturn, we need to be ready to make that claim, effectively.
  • Voter registration, naturalization, youth voter engagement: Numbers don’t equal power. Anyway you calculate them. BUT, organized numbers are the best way to guarantee a seat at the table and, many times, the substantive policy changes we want and deserve. Check out this map and tell me how happy you are. And now let’s go out and do something to shape the nature of the electorate not only in 2010, but in 2012 and 2014 and 2016, too.
  • Coalition building–we need a ‘big tent’: We need coordinated campaigns that make the case for broad investments in our social infrastructure, not ad hoc and sometimes oppositional appeals for special dispensation here and there. This will take a lot of organizing and may result in some uncomfortable alliances, but we know that it works. I mean, the Joint Chiefs of Staff go in with one united voice, right, and they get what they want. Well maybe we need a Joint Chiefs of the Social Economy, or something, and we need to speak with a big, powerful voice.
  • Organizational capacity for social change, even if that means nonprofit consolidation: I don’t believe that the growth in the number of nonprofits is necessarily a cause for any concern–where there are unmet needs and people with great capacity to meet them, we absolutely need an organizational response to facilitate that. But a post I read recently about the idea of requiring nonprofit peer review before charter got me thinking about the role that mergers and acquisitions play in the corporate world during economic hardship, and the generally-held belief that such processes play a role in the emergence of stronger, healthier corporations post-recession. And that got me thinking about the fact that, while we may not have too many nonprofits in the abstract, we all know of some that just aren’t really doing much, or not doing all that they should, or not doing things as well as they should, or not doing what they could if they were complemented by another organization, or…you get the idea. And, so, I’ll be so bold as to suggest that, in our pursuit of organizational strength and capacity for advocacy, which absolutely has to be a priority as we gear up for the end, we need to be willing to consider consolidation of organizations as a tool in that process.

    All of this said, I recognize that the recession is far from over. The human cost is real and huge. And social workers will absolutely play a key role in stopping the bleeding during the months to come.

    But, to really do justice for those whose lives have been ripped apart by the economic turmoil of the past few years, we have to be ready to act decisively and victoriously when the tide turns. There must be some honor from their suffering.

  • Devolution as Demolition: Social welfare budgets and the states

    Picture1
    Credit: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

    I had to pretty much completely revise my lectures on state and federal budgetary/fiscal policies for this fall’s Advanced Policies course. I wanted to include content on the federal stimulus, some information on how tax and budgetary policies likely will (and, perhaps even more importantly) will not change under an Obama Administration, and also discuss the extreme fiscal strain on states.

    It was in researching that latter point that the cruelty and profound injustice of our journey towards devolution became so much clearer. It has been at times a slow slide and at other times a dramatic drop, but the end result is clear: states are responsible for more and more of the social welfare functions that the federal government used to provide.

    In much of the professional/academic literature on the topic of new federalism, including that which comes from social workers, this lament is always accompanied by the disclaimer: “but now decision-making is so much closer to the people.” As though we’re comparing equal entities’ provision of service so that, of course, we would prefer that which is more nimble and responsive and “democratic”. Setting aside the not-trivial question of whether state governments really are more accountable and representative, this recession is bringing into focus the fundamental ways in which comparisons between state and federal social welfare systems would be laughable, if the impact wasn’t so tragic.

    To put it in perspective: the combined fiscal capacity ($$$$) of all of the state budgets in the country is only a little more than half of the size of the federal budget. Yes, I know that the federal government is responsible for many things that the states are not (chiefly, national defense) but, in today’s euphemistically titled ‘new federalism’, the reverse is also true. Slice it however you want, wrap it up in pretty ‘responsive, accountable, nimble’ paper, but it’s still means that there’s just not enough to go around when we push things off on state governments that are smaller, more restricted in their revenue generation (especially as states’ tax bases are linked to the federal one, which keeps being eroded), and unable to borrow money (except Connecticut!) when times get really tough.

    I’ve tried all week to come up with an analogy that I think really illustrates this, but here’s the best I could come up with. Hopefully someone has something better that they can post in the comments (hint, hint!)?

    Say you’re really hungry. Really, really hungry. You go to a restaurant, and your choice is between one table, served by the nicest waiter who will let you choose the color of napkin that you want and what music to listen to, will come running anytime you call, and asks for your opinions before making a move. But, at this table, you can only have a small slice of bread or half an apple (you can choose, but that’s all they have). At the other table, there’s no tablecloth, the food is brought out by an unsmiling robot, and you can’t choose what you get, but you’ll get a decent plate of food: say, spaghetti and meatballs (it’s still not 4 star, folks, let’s not kid ourselves). Which would you choose?

    This current recession is not done devastating states. Budget shortfalls are projected to be even worse in Fiscal Year 2011 than they are this year. And this year they’re horrible. As in more than $350 billion dollars, between them, for both years combined. Stimulus dollars cover less than 40% of this gap, so states are slashing budgets for higher education, public assistance, state workforce, K-12 schools, and services for seniors. More than 39 states have already cut programs for their most vulnerable residents. And it’s going to get worse.

    Social work advocates can and should (and MUST) fight these battles in our state legislatures, arguing persuasively for the programs that people need to survive and to thrive. We have to win more of those fights every year. But we also need to point out what governors all over the country are quickly learning: there’s only so much that a state can do. Some of the core services that states are currently cutting should not, really, be their responsibility at all. We have a federal government to provide for our common welfare, not just our collective defense. The era of devolution as demolition needs to come to an end. We need to stop using squishy language about taking government close to the people and start ensuring that people get what they need.