Friday, September 25, 2009

What Does The Budget Impasse Mean for Neighborhoods?

Lest readers think the state budget crisis is over simply because our elected officials announced that it’s over, let me tell you how the crisis continues to be felt at the neighborhood level.

This afternoon I attended a meeting of child care providers from around the city who gather regularly to address shared concerns. Often discussions tackle issues like how to make the bureaucracies providers interact with more responsive to their needs. Sometimes they focus on the quest to obtain affordable health insurance for the child care sector. Once a year the group holds a gala luncheon for hundreds of child care practitioners, at which they honor programs that have met higher quality standards over the past year.

Today the conversation was all about the state budget. About the importance of sticking together to advocate for the needs of families with young children. About holding legislators accountable for the promises they make to expand investments in child care. About notifying parents now that providers will close for a day next spring to lobby in Harrisburg.

Heady stuff. If there were providers in the room who doubt whether they’ll still be in business by then, they kept their doubts to themselves. Many haven’t been paid since June. Some have received only partial payments since the end of the fiscal year.

The story is familiar by now: without a current-year budget, the state hasn’t been able to pay the agencies it contracts with to provide child care for approximately 50,000 low-income children from 0-5 in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Depending on the population they serve, some child care providers receive as much as 90 percent of their income from these reimbursements.

What’s less well-known than the struggle in Harrisburg to pass a budget is the toll this struggle is taking on in neighborhoods. The woman sitting next to me this afternoon told me she hasn’t been paid by the state since June. When I asked how she’s managed she said she and her husband have exhausted their personal savings. Calmly, she told me they can last for one more week before they have to close. (A statewide survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Office for Child Development and Early Learning revealed that 31 percent of providers estimate they’ll be forced to close by the end of September if they don’t receive state funds.)

A number of providers at the meeting have taken out second mortgages on their homes. Some are collecting unemployment and volunteering at their centers. One woman stopped making car payments. Even after state money starts to flow gain, it won’t compensate them for the interest paid on loans, late fees, higher unemployment compensation rates and other fees they’re incurring as a result of this crisis. Still, the discussion stayed focused on solving problems and moving forward.

Then a guest speaker was introduced from the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. He began by talking about resources to help families that are struggling. Then he spoke about mortgage foreclosure, encouraging providers to refer families they work with to various foreclosure diversion programs. He emphasized that there’s no shame in asking for help, and even allowed that “some of you may even be struggling with this.”

A woman raised her hand and asked a “hypothetical” question about renegotiating the terms of a loan. Only it became clear that the question wasn’t hypothetical. Others asked specific questions – too specific to be asking on behalf of friends and neighbors.

If these (mostly) women were strictly in it for the money, they would have closed down weeks ago. But they’ve kept their doors open -- often at great personal sacrifice -- because they care about kids in their communities. Because they know families would have no where else to turn. Because they believe every child has the right to show up on the first day of kindergarten ready to learn.

Please honor their beliefs, hard work and efforts to keep moving forward by urging your legislators to enact this budget quickly.

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About Me

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Public Citizens for Children and Youth is a non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to improving the lives of children in the five-county southeastern Pennsylvania area.