Tag Archives: federal budget

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.