Thursday, March 19, 2009

Faith Works 3-21-09
Jeff Gill

A Modest Proposal For Serving the Disadvantaged of the County

Last week we had the community forum on how the developing state budget will impact social services, specifically in Licking County, but actually all over Ohio.

The general outlook is, in a word, grim, which is not surprising given the state of our economy and business. What many might have been surprised by, even knowing much about the precariousness of our Statehouse budget process (I perhaps overdignify it with the word “process”), is just how bad things are likely to get in another year or two even if the economy recovers and makes a modest resurgence, starting, say, next Monday.

Given that the overwhelming bulk of our state budget (95% of outlays, says our local Representative, Jay Hottinger) goes to either K-12 education or Medicaid, and while those are the two areas where the only official rhetoric is for expanded access and services, and piling on top of that the fact that the state is phasing out the “tangible personal property tax,” we have deficits looming as far as the eye can see.

The short term solution is to put Stimulosity Bill money into budget line items, which means the support vanishes in Jan. of 2012 – but to take the money in the first place obligates the receiving state to continue offer enhanced benefits after the federal support ends (which might explain why some states are rethinking this money, a luxury Ohio clearly does not have).

So that’s what we’ll face in two and a half years: a mombo money pit suddenly appearing in front of our feet. And that takes us back to last week’s meeting, where the worry is that to balance, even with Stimulosity Bill money, the budgets starting this July 1, the agencies which brought us together will be facing major, massive cuts, cuts which in many cases are double-down anti-bets, since there are current federal dollars that require a state or local match. They vanish immediately on the loss of the state dollars that “leveraged” them.

Which is why the heads of Job and Family Services (which includes the department of Children’s Services), the Board of Mental Retardation/Developmental Disabilities, or just MR/DD, and the Community Mental Health and Recovery Board (our emergency counseling, mental health, and addiction prevention/treatment oversight and auditing body), all got a bunch of us together to go over the numbers.

1 in 7 Licking Countians are on Medicaid. 1 in 10 Licking Countians receive food stamp assistance; 2 out of 100 receive some form of public cash assistance beyond the basic help of food stamps. Those are numbers that you have to lay alongside the unemployment rate creeping inexorably towards two digits, and that 10% should be seen as not including the underemployed (a person in a 20 hour a week job who wants 40, but can’t find it) and the discouraged, since if you haven’t looked in the last week, you aren’t counted as unemployed.

So what is that number, really?

I’m looking on in the back of the room, a bit distracted, since I’ve heard all these numbers before, working in and around these agencies. I can tell many people of good will in the room are troubled and confused, because at first blush they represent insuperable problems.

Then I thought of that wise old sage, an English clergyman serving in Ireland long ago, Jonathan Swift. You may know his “Gulliver’s Travels,” but he also wrote an essay called “A Modest Proposal” (the actual title is much longer, but begins with those three words).

In the spirit of Swift, it occurred to me that the answer to our dilemma, and that of these public spirited entities, is obvious. We have at any given time 1000 adults and over 500 children in their care who need our immediate aid and support (the some 1000 special needs children and adults served by MR/DD we can consider at another time). There is still reasonable funding for the direct services, but the fact that budgets for staff to meet with them and screen them and implement plans is being cut, and that the ones in need are all over the county, means that wait times and delays will be snowballing even before direct aid is due to be cut.

So why not concentrate all of the people who need help into camps, which we can place on the state historic sites now being shuttered and mothballed by budget cuts? We could call them a fine old traditional name, made famous by Charles Dickens, “workhouses.” We could quickly erect huts that house 40 at a time, 60 if we triple bunk, so our Licking County needy would be neatly housed in 40 buildings (25 if you triple bunk, the older children helping up the younger).

That wise social theorist Ebenezer Scrooge said of workhouses that we should allow nothing “to stop them in their useful course.” What do you think of re-instating workhouses, where camps allow us to concentrate the needy where we can more easily direct our aid to them?

Perhaps some might even want to board trains that could be organized to send the hardier among them to the open fields of the west where land and opportunity is limitless. At any rate, I hope the churches and congregations of Licking County discuss how they think this coming challenge should be faced – and if you like my “modest proposal,” I hope you do a search for Rev. Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and read that short essay as a starting point.

[FYI -- ]

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he has been known to engage in irony and satire. Tell him an ironic tale at

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