Tag Archives: federal budget

The budget is us

One of the most powerful moments in my social policy class (and, yes, I think there are more than one; I love when students realize all of the ways in which their families depend on ‘welfare’ benefits, for example, especially through the tax code) is when we talk about budgets as reflections of our collective values.

That was a point emphasized in the book Red Ink, too, the idea that the “budget is driven by the things that people want” (p. 23).

Budgets tell the story of who we are and, in this way (and very few others), the federal budget does parallel your household budget. Looking at where you spend your money, one would get a clear sense of what you think is important.

That’s true for our national appropriations, too.

There’s a breakdown, though, in our shared conversation about budgets as a tool with which to accomplish the things that we think matter. Our budgets tell the story of who we are as a country, but we’re unable to see some critical aspects of that narrative.

When 44% of those on Social Security think they’ve never been on a government program, there’s clearly a disconnect.

When the budget is demonized as a problem to get rid of, instead of recognized as a mutual commitment to take care of each other (and ourselves), we clearly need a more honest accounting.

Individually, we may object to specific budget line items–I’m not at all sure that I want to spend $11 billion on an aircraft carrier, and I’m not certain about the advisability of spending billions on hip replacements, either–but we cannot start the conversations about whether those are the choices we want to make, and the legacy we want to leave, until we at least see them as choices that leave legacies.

The federal budget may be crafted and approved in Washington, DC, but it is not an autonomous force.

Instead, it is created by us, to reflect us.

It is of us, which means that we have the right–and the responsibility–to shape it in the image that we envision for our shared futures.

If we don’t like what we see, it is incumbent upon us to push for changes.

Pulling back the curtain–technology for budget knowledge

My 7-year-old son has been testing out these interactive federal budget games for me over the past few weeks, especially the Budget Hero, which is quite cool, really.

And I’m intrigued by the increasing availability, born of the attention and vigorous debate around the federal budget, of multimedia content with which to engage our thinking (including that of my students!) around budget decisions, like this video.

What I find encouraging about these kinds of tools is their ability to bridge a particular challenge–making the federal budget (in its massive scale and far-reaching scope) accessible to Americans, without simplifying it to the level of a household budget, which is inherently distorting and, I think, somewhat destructive.

To get off the sidelines and really engage with these essential budget questions, we need to increase our understanding about the trade-offs involved and find ways to wrap our collective heads around the tough sacrifices inherent in the process of resource allocation.

But we need to do it on real terms, not those that would pretend that the U.S. government should operate as a family would, or that the stakes are comparable.

While an online game–or a documentary–can’t approximate the experience of really holding the nation’s fiscal future in one’s hands, if Sam’s enthusiastic ‘refreshing’ of his game, to start over when he doesn’t like the way it ended up, is any indication, they may be helpful tools for bringing our knowledge up to a point where we’re able to have real conversations.

Have you discovered, and tried, any budget tools like these? Do you have any favorites? What functionality do you think would improve these experiences? What role can you imagine for this technology, in our national deliberation of the budget?

Review Week: Red Ink

It’s hard to imagine a time when there has been more attention paid to the federal budget than in the past several years.

When my students have to do a media analysis of coverage of the budget, it’s an embarrassment of riches these days.

But I find, for my students, that sometimes this familiarity can breed contempt.

When they learn that, in 2009, for the first time every dollar of revenue was committed for past promises–entitlements–it can be hard to message around why their advocacy is imperative.

When they question whether any crisis is sufficient to prompt leadership in today’s budget battles, I worry that they will cringe and turn away.

When I explain rules like Pay As You Go (PAYGO), I worry that, instead of committed to learning more about how to navigate the constraints in order to be effective advocates, they will toss up their hands in disgust.

In the fall semester, I teach a survey of social policy. For the most part, my energies are focused on helping students untangle what they thought they knew about the social policy landscape in which we live–and our clients struggle–and helping them articulate alternatives that could bring better outcomes.

And, now, in the spring, I teach advocacy practice.

For the first time, I’m finding it harder.

My students who are ‘coming of age’ (of any chronological age) in this particular climate are at risk, I fear, of tuning out, in a way that I couldn’t imagine just a few years ago.

It’s not that the policy climate is any more adverse than it was then; we cannot let ourselves be lulled into complacency by imagining that this is any worse than a time when ketchup was declared a vegetable for school lunches, or certainly when long lines formed for free meals.

It’s the process that concerns me, and my students’ difficulty in visioning a role for themselves within it.

Because their voices are needed, of course, now more than ever.

I consider it, then, one of my most sacred duties, to keep them from abandoning these fights.

What sustains you, as an advocate, and gives you enough hope to continue to engage? What should be my approach to cultivating that same engagement among my students?

A roundup, of sorts

As I look toward spring break (oh yes, professors count down, too!), I am cleaning out my ‘blog about this’ folder in my inbox.

And running out of time to write posts about all of them.

So, with only a bit of context and introduction, here are some things I’ve been thinking about and wanted to share. I’d love to hear your feedback, either now or when I get back, ready to finish this spring semester strong, in class and on here.

  • Social Services and Social Change Webinar: Last fall, I had the chance to participate in a webinar for Grassroots Grantmakers with Building Movement Project (so, yes, I was sort of awestruck). I found the PowerPoint and recording for the webinar online and wanted to share it. You can listen to me talk about my work with reStart, Inc., integrating advocacy and social change into their volunteer outreach and orientation efforts. And you can hear Frances and Sean lay out how BMP works to engage social service providers around the country. It’s cool stuff.
  • reStart, Inc.’s move to focus on permanent solutions to homelessness: Related to the above, here’s a blog post from the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City about reStart, Inc.’s shift in their services and approach to more intentionally focus on permanent solutions to homelessness, rather than services for those experiencing homelessness. It’s visionary and bold and kind of scary, and I think it’s awesome.
  • ‘Clash’ between immigrant rights groups and DC advocates: He calls them ‘power brokers’, which isn’t necessarily inaccurate but a little pejorative. Still, this used to be my world, so I read with much interest this piece on the growing divide between grassroots immigrant rights groups and those working legislation in the beltway. I believe that there are roles for both in a movement, but also that holding them together–even when their ultimate visions are similar (and, here, in some cases, they are not)–is hard. It’s a fascinating case study, of sorts, and, again, one close to my heart.
  • Social workers are joining the ‘tell our own story’ revolution: This post from Social Work Helper underscores the importance of telling our stories, as social workers (here, child welfare workers). What I like most is the reminder that the narrative goes on, with or without us, so others will tell our stories for us if we don’t tell our own.
  • Getting out of the U.S. echo chamber, for a different perspective on social policy: This piece from David Bacon exposes the extent to which U.S. policy on immigration is out of step with global trends. We have a tendency–maybe most nations do–to think that our ‘consensus’ is more of less in line with where policy is heading. We even seek out media and other affirmations of that belief. But it’s often not true, and, in the case of global policies like immigration, this distinction is important.
  • Storify of my live Twitter chat on nonprofit advocacy, for Social Work Helper: I love how they aggregate this, and I love remembering the great conversations we had about living our values and acting as advocates within social work organizations.
  • Poll shows America is ready for equity: Need some good news? Me too. After posting about inequality a lot lately (and some more coming up, I think, after break), it was encouraging to see this poll about Americans’ support for policies that would move in the direction of greater equity. Some interesting findings: while Americans mostly overestimate the current and future diversity of the U.S. population, they are far from panicked about these changing demographics. More than 70% support increased funding for training and infrastructure and education, all steps that would move in the direction of greater equity.
  • Head Start pushing back against sequestration: Nothing warms my heart–not even Florida sunshine!–like service providers standing up for those they serve. So I love getting emails about the effects of sequestration on Head Start funding, even though I hate what these funding cuts are doing to young children who, after all, will never have another chance to be 3.

What have I missed? What has lingered in your inbox, waiting to be shared?

Whither the American Dream? Not on our watch.

It is, of course, not enough just to catalog the way that U.S. social and economic policies are imperiling the American dream.

We have to stop it.

That will, of course, take a movement, since, on our own, we tend to respond to the confrontation of so much that’s wrong with a disengagement, what Ernie Cortes calls the axiom that “powerlessness also corrupts” (p. xviii).

But, together, we could have what Smith calls an ‘army of volunteers prepared to battle for the common cause of reclaiming the American Dream” (p. 425).

That will take changes to the way the system works, maybe with mandatory voting, so that elected officials would know with some certainty that they would face the wrath of the entire electorate if they fail to vote the interests of most Americans (p. 417), and certainly with campaign finance reform. We likely need to rethink the role of political parties (p. 414), and there is certainly evidence that Senate rules have outlived their usefulness (p. 322). There is evidence that members of Congress tune out the opinions of average Americans when voting on legislation, especially when powerful financial interests get engaged (p. 135). But they wouldn’t–they couldn’t–if we change the terms of engagement.

Shifting these terms of engagement could result in real changes in the distributional policies we pursue, including reductions in military spending so that we can reinvest in U.S. infrastructure and opportunity, what then-candidate Obama described as “fighting to put the American Dream within reach for every American…for what folks in this state have been spending on the Iraq war, we could be giving health care to nearly 450,000 of your neighbors, hiring nearly 30,000 new elementary school teachers, and making college more affordable for over 300,000 students” (p. 373). But we’re not. Yet. And that has to change. Dwight Eisenhower knew that “to amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another” (p. 353). Another case of a Kansan who got it right.

And we need new tax policies. Really. Our tax policies are the opposite of what Americans really want, what some economists consider “the most political law in the world” (p. 106). We need new estate tax policies, to start, and to eliminate the earnings cap on Social Security. Achieving some victories like that could, perhaps, get more Americans to see how much tax policies matter, to build momentum for even bigger lifts.

Truly, there’s so much that needs to be fixed that you can sort of take your pick about where we start, in terms of substantive policy changes.

What is even more important is the strategy. That’s why, when I heard this piece on NPR during an early morning workout, I was struck by the quote at the very end.

It’s going to take a revolution.

But isn’t a dream worth fighting for?

If even Big Bird’s on the chopping block…

This is not really a post about the debate where Romney suggested cutting funding for public broadcasting.

We’ve put that behind us, right?

Instead, it’s about the symbolism of the debate, and about the very real and still very urgent risk that we lose our collective understanding of what the commons means, and why it matters.

We spend a lot of time at public parks. Even now, in the winter, thanks to climate change. Really.

But much of what my kids know, even still, is commodified. The only television they watch comes through Netflix, which we buy. Their favorite places to play are the indoor play centers, which charge entrance fees. The youngest ones go to private preschools, and even my son in public school doesn’t really know what public school would look like without the additional services paid for with private dollars, from parents’ contributions, like the counselor and his Spanish class and the extra field trips.

They wouldn’t at all understand the significance of eliminating PBS, because they don’t really understand the idea that valuable things can be provided, free to the user, through our shared investment.

Today, it seems that nothing is ‘sacred’ from privatization and retrenchment.

My students did a presentation last fall on the private prison industry and its influence on public policy that shocked even me. More of the mental health system has shifted to private providers, leaving an emaciated community mental health system incapable of dealing with demand. One of my client organizations saw a would-be client commit suicide after experiencing a six-week wait for an initial mental health assessment.

The city where I live recently changed its policies to allow neighbors to reject sidewalk projects, after homeowners complained that having public sidewalks on their streets hurt their property values.


What does it mean, for those of us who believe in the commons, and for a sector like ours, which thrives there?

If there is at least a sizable percentage of our society that is willing to sacrifice Big Bird in the name of austerity, what is in store for much less fuzzy things we value, like the Older Americans Act and Medicaid expansion and early childhood intervention programs?

Are there lessons to be learned from those pieces of the commons that we do still prioritize? From universal programs like Social Security, that have woven their way into inevitability? What do we need to be doing–with our organizing, and our messaging, and our advocacy–to position ourselves to emerge unscathed from the budget cuts that still stretch across the horizon, in this new year?

What will it take to rebuild the commons, and to recapture the imaginations of children just like mine, who–despite Mommy’s infatuation with public libraries–still think that most things that are worth something have to be bought, and brought home, just for us?

It’s all about the orange. Really.

Image credit, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

My students and former students know this graph well.

One of my former students joked that he was going to create t-shirts for me with the figure on the back and “It’s all about the orange” on the front.

Yes, I have really great students.

I have shown this chart every semester for the past three years (thanks to the folks at CBPP for updating it and permitting me to share it!), and my students often comment about how it makes them think differently about how we got in the mess we’re in today.

This post is about how I struggle, sometimes, to engage my students in discussing issues and realities that are, often, pretty new to them: the deficit, congressional gridlock, Kansas’ bleak fiscal future, the looming entitlement crises…

Without engendering a “it’s all hopeless and politicians are corrupt so I’m just going to focus on helping this client” reaction.

How do I spark anger, instead of cynicism?

How do I cultivate hope, even while alarming them to the point of action?

Because, the truth is, I believe these are solvable problems.

They are hard decisions, obviously–a cursory reading of the news underscores that people of good will have real differences of opinion about the best way to ‘bend the cost curve’ on entitlements, for example.

They are both technical and adaptive challenges, then: those that we don’t exactly know how to solve, and those for which we struggle to generate adequate political will to solve.

But the worst thing we can do, of course, is throw up our hands and abdicate the discussion to those who don’t share our social work values. Especially when some of the problems reveal stark choices about different paths, and we know that taking a given course would have significant implications for the individuals and communities we are called to serve.

So, I return to my dilemma of sorts.

A few weeks ago, after class, one of my students told me that “everyone should have to take this class” (I couldn’t agree more!) about budget policy and its impact on nonprofit organizations. But so often, I can see their fear, and disdain, and panic, and, in a blink, resignation.

What keeps you from turning away in disgust? Where is the line between alarm and alarmist? How do I balance outrage and uplift?

How do I light a fire without watching their commitment to engage in policy change go up in flames?

Now more than ever: Local Government Matters

My students are studying local government this month in my Advanced Policy course.

They’re often somewhat surprised to see it included in the course outline–it’s not in the master syllabus, certainly, and it’s not a topic that they have encountered before in their social work education.

But I argue that it’s critically important for social workers and those who care about social justice, now more than ever.

And, you know, sometimes I really hate to be right.

A debate that exploded two weeks ago drove this point home, alarmingly.

The District Attorney in Shawnee County, Kansas, home to our state capital and just an hour down the turnpike from my home, announced that his office would no longer prosecute misdemeanors, including most domestic violence complaints, due to limited financial resources. Specifically, he required a $350,000 payment from the City Council (where he argued most of these cases originated) in order to continue the prosecutions.

It’s horrifying to think that perpetrators of domestic violence could rest assured that they would not face prosecution for their crimes, not because they hadn’t done something very, very wrong, but because the government can’t afford to do the right thing.

But it’s not surprising, not really.

With the federalist relationship between states and the federal government falling apart in a flurry of massive cuts in discretionary spending and unfunded mandates and devolution gone astray, state budgets were stretched to the breaking point. Then, all too often, state governments intent on dismantling the social contract used constrained finances as an excuse to retrench, even when the bottom line improved.

And, of course, in the process, local governments got squeezed, especially given their dependence on the kinds of taxes (property and sales taxes) among the hardest-hit in this recession.

And who do they squeeze, as the folks at the end of the line?

Those most vulnerable, of course–kids, whose schools are struggling; older adults, whose fixed incomes can’t easily absorb the costs passed along; individuals who rely on the public commons, which is eroding and in sore need of investment; and victims of crime, whose search for justice can apparently be sacrificed in the name of fiscal expediency.

We absolutely must hold local governments responsible for decisions like this. Government at all levels needs to hear that it’s not acceptable to balance budgets on the backs of those most in need.

But we also have an obligation to connect the dots, and to hold the federal and state governments accountable for the impact of their decisions, and for the reprehensible attempts to pass the buck to local entities.

Local governments didn’t create these problems themselves, and they can’t solve them alone, either.

We need advocates in the local government arena, though, where the cuts come home to hurt.

Now more than ever.

Preventable Train Wrecks: Federal Budget Advocacy

The new federal fiscal year just started.

Which would be a noteworthy event if, say, we had a budget that actually started on the fiscal year, with new budget authorization for the federal agencies whose work is so important to our individual and collective well-being. If the new fiscal year meant the actual resources we need to do the critical activities that support the nation’s most fervent desires and greatest needs? Well, these days, that sounds nearly miraculous.

Instead, we have a perpetual mess that few can understand and no one can control, or even predict. The one constant for we social workers is that we will have to scrimp and scrounge to find the money to do what needs to be done, with a growing resentment towards a government, and a budget process, that isn’t supposed to make our jobs this much harder.

When I talk with social work advocates about the federal budget, as I do in class every fall and in conversations with nonprofit leaders throughout the year, their reactions to the whole affair are pretty much the same:

Disdain, disgust, disengagement…with periodic disaster, whenever the (usually very) small slice of the federal budget that funds their work is threatened, or rumored to be so, since few social service providers have enough direct information about the federal budget to know for sure.

This means that social work advocates have a rather spectacularly dysfunctional relationship with the federal budget. We fail in our federal budget advocacy in some rather routine ways, and those failures have implications not only for our own programs and constituencies, but, indeed, for the fiscal health of the nation as a whole.

The biggest errors are these (and, of course, it goes without saying both that these are not universal and that I include myself among the culpable):

  • We take as truth the common wisdom about the federal budget–today, that there’s a “crisis”, because we don’t understand enough about the process to make those analyses for ourselves.
  • We look only at a portion of the budget, very seldom weighing in on the big picture, so that our advocacy becomes a real elbowing match, as we fight for meager portions with others (mostly other social service types) relegated to our corner of the budget.
  • We totally overlook the revenue side, as though, somehow, the tax debate was not our fight, which essentially dooms us to vying for a tiny piece of a shrinking pie.
  • We get involved way too late, mobilizing our constituencies only when there’s a perception of real threat, and, even then, we don’t/can’t help those same constituencies understand all of the factors at play that create the crisis. This sets up our grassroots folks to make panicked phone calls, without much context, to “not cut the funding for XYZ”, which, while not necessarily an ineffective lobbying technique, is anything but empowering. We need those who receive our services to understand where the funding comes from, how to make the case year-round, and how the viability of those services is affected by other political and economic factors. Talk about teachable moments.
  • We let the ugliness of the process excuse our inaction. I hate the “shadow budget” as much as the next do-gooder. I’m appalled at our tax code and frightened about the future of our entitlements. I think it’s inexcusable how much money we spend on things that don’t really matter, and how easily our spending priorities are distorted by raw political considerations. Yes, yes, and yes. But that doesn’t mean that we can afford to sit this one out, or that the illogic and sometimes sheer nastiness of the federal budget process makes it an inappropriate or unnecessary realm for our best advocacy efforts.

    Because the results are predictable: when we’re not there, at least not until the end, our voices are not reflected in the budget, which is, after all, fundamentally a statement of values–the same way that my own checkbook register shows what I care about enough to spend money on.

    And we can do better. We must. Because the hard questions aren’t going to get answered if we’re not even asking them.

    And because our clients deserve far better than crumbs.

    I regularly read the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ federal budget analyses, even the footnotes that I sometimes struggle to understand. I scan the policy priorities of some of the other major advocacy groups that watch the federal budget. I read national news coverage of the budget battles, and I attend public forums and listen to commentary from my own congressional delegation. And I pay attention to discussion about process reforms–the ways that we could make our budget negotiations go better so that the resulting budget would be better, too, even though sometimes the appropriation v. authorization talk makes my eyes glaze over, too.

    Because advocating with and for those we have the honor to serve means being in the toughest fights.

    And the most tedious, nauseating, and overwhelming, too.

    Let’s make this the last federal fiscal train wreck we fail to prevent.

  • America Speaks: The federal budget, the limits of consensus, and a confession

    photo credit, America Speaks

    A good friend of mine was very involved in the local contingent of the national deliberative process around the federal budget, earlier this year, through the organization America Speaks. A couple of days after the town hall, she and I were waiting for our kids to finish swimming lessons, and, as we often do, talking about democracy and public policy and social change, instead of…whatever else we might talk about?

    And, while I don’t remember exactly, I can imagine that I might have rolled my eyes a bit. Because the truth is, as many of those who had social work classes with me, or those who have shared a table with me at any sort of deliberative process function know, I have this major ambivalence about the whole “consensus-building” process.

    I’m totally pro-citizen engagement, as you know–but that’s citizen engagement with those in power, vying for power themselves, making a mark on the policymaking process, making their voices heard by those with the authority to do something about it.

    And that’s where the disconnect has often been for me with these facilitated ‘conversations’ about critical social issues: they can give sitting around with people who have absolutely no intention nor ability to change anything the appearance of being real democracy, which, I believe, can actually do significant harm. People who feel that things should have changed because they spent 4 hours (or, in this case, 8!) talking about them (and, in fact, are given the impression that they will) can lose heart and disengage from the tactics that would be more likely to bring results.

    There are few things more disempowering than false empowerment.

    So, I probably said something about how I’m less interested in consensus and more interested in building the power that will enable me to win (my most infamous example of this frustration with process comes after a painful seminar on consensus organizing, when I admittedly told the woman who had illustrated the philosophy behind the approach with a “tiny fire of smoldering embers” that, “sometimes, what we need is a big ass bonfire to really burn some stuff up.”)

    So that gives you a sense of how I struggle with this stuff.

    Still, when some of my students brought up the America Speaks: Our Budget, Our Economy session during class discussion on the federal budget last week, I resolved to sit down and really go through their work. Because, to a large extent, something that can get people worked up enough about reasonable strategies for deficit reduction is doing something very, very right.

    And, I’ll say it.

    I was wrong. Okay, partially.

    Because there is really a lot to get excited about, at least in the way that this particular organization approaches the whole deliberative democracy idea, even if I still have a lot of caveats to my enthusiasm.

    What I love:

  • Engagement is off the charts: they had 3500 participants in 60 cities, 1600+ fans on Facebook, and more than 49 comments to a blog post summarizing the preliminary results. The challenge, of course, is to translate engagement in that process to engagement in the political one, but, still, that’s a level of ongoing participation that is bound to teach people a lot of the very skills (holding firm in their positions, articulating their values, communicating dense policy information) that they’ll need to succeed in advocacy in the policymaking venue, too.
  • They’ve obviously thought about how to make the message resonate with the intended audience–there was A LOT more here in terms of testimony to Congress, a press strategy, and even participation by members of Congress (9 were part of the day’s events) than I had mentally given them credit for, or than I have often experienced in these kinds of conversations.
  • The level of depth and breadth in the proposed recommendations is commendable, and quite sophisticated–another painful memory of mine is sitting through a daylong discussion of how to end poverty in my state that ended with, seriously, a consensus that we should have “a working group” dedicated to the issue. I was even invited to be on it! Um, no thanks. By contrast, the folks at America Speaks had very specific, actionable (and, therefore, objectionable, but that’s a lot of what I like about them!) recommendations that are really quite close to legislative proposals.
  • They’re thinking about how to move people to action–they have sample letters to the editor and have briefed members of Congress (and, I hope, providing tools to help participants do likewise), and their website includes a “take action” button. For that alone, I owe they (and Brandi!) a sincere apology for any eye-rolling that may have occurred.

    But, still, I have a few worries. I’m not sure, really, that these are avoidable in this whole deliberative exercise, but they still concern me:

  • The whole “keypad polling” thing is reminiscent of American Idol and, I think, can give people a false sense that they really have a “vote” on matters like whether to raise the Social Security retirement age, leading to confusion about exactly how citizens interact with policy, and with policymakers.
  • There still seems to be a preoccupation with process. While I could say that I’m glad that people are learning to hold leaders accountable, most of those 49 comments related to the process of deliberation itself, and, honestly, frustration with how America Speaks was handling the analysis. With record deficits, onoing high unemployment rates, and dire need for investments in much of human welfare in this country, that seems like misplacement of some of this awesome energy.
  • Similarly, I still think that the focus on consensus exacerbates our discomfort with power, and how power can/should be used, in unproductive ways. The truth is that consensus doesn’t figure into our policymaking process AT ALL, and, to at least a certain extent, we have to recognize that if we’re going to get smart about doing the things that will get us the power we need.

    When we were talking about the local event, my friend lamented the protestors outside who were criticizing America Speaks for (in their opinion) including options that would threaten Social Security and ignored the potential of single-payer health care. I, on the other hand, was delighted. Because the truth is that we need that, too–people who will stand outside and scream, until the conversation happening inside has to shift, somewhat, to accommodate them.

    But, still, I stand largely corrected. And, Brandi, I promise, next time I’ll let you watch your kid swim.