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The Budget and the Damage Done

The 2006 budget clipped the wings of many organizations that provide basic services to the poor. Bush's 2007 budget could ground them permanently.
 
 
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Every month, 80-year-old Sally Shaver pays someone to drive her to the Harvest Hope Food Bank in Columbia, S.C., to pick up a box of fresh produce, baked goods, dry cereals, juice, canned goods and cheese. "It really helps me out because after paying for my rent, phone bill and medication, I barely have enough for food," she says. "If I could work, I would, but I have an artificial knee and a pacemaker, and I can't get around."

Shaver, who worked as a nurse's aide for most of her life, brings in $451 a month in social security. Her fixed income qualifies her for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which is designed to improve the health and nutrition of low-income senior citizens, pregnant women, postpartum mothers, infants and children.

Last year, CSFP provided 536,196 people with a monthly box of food. Bush's proposed budget for 2007 calls for a nationwide elimination of the entire program.

"As a food bank, we are very concerned about this program. When you have a growing population of elderly in this state, how are we going to find other resources to replace it?" asks Denise Holland, executive director of the Harvest Hope Food Bank. "We have already been serving these seniors for two years, and they have gotten accustomed to this. I can't turn people away in wheelchairs. My heart won't let me do it."

Holland says if the program is cut entirely, she'll seek food and financial donations to ensure the neediest recipients continue to receive their monthly box of food. "Because they are on a fixed income, this box makes the difference between them not having enough to eat for the month to really being able to spread it out over the month," she says. "When they experience hunger, their health is going to decline, which is going to cost us more to help them in other ways."

The Harvest Food Bank serves 56,000 people per week in 18 South Carolina counties, but is only able to offer the CSFP in two counties because of funding constraints. Bush's 2006 budget cuts forced the program to cut the number of boxes it offers from 1,400 to 1,200 per month and that's just in two counties. More than 350 low-income senior citizens are on the program's waiting list.

South Carolina ranks second nationwide for the highest percentage of hungry people and fifth for the highest percentage of individuals with food insecurity, according to the Center on Hunger and Poverty.

Child care's ugly death

Because kindergarten isn't required in Indiana, affordable child care is crucial for low-income single mothers like 25-year-old Shalaywa Murphy. Her $9.95 an hour job as a sterile processor qualifies her for voucher assistance at Imagination Station Child Development Center in Michigan City, one of only two licensed daycare centers in the area.

Murphy's 6-year-old son attended kindergarten at the center until she went on a six-week maternity leave. "If you're on maternity leave, your child can't continue daycare unless you pay for it," she says. "Because I don't get paid maternity leave, I can't afford it, so my son is now home with me, and I worry about his education."

Because Murphy is low on cash and wants her son back in school, she plans to ask her doctor if she can go back to work a week early. The problem is, her newborn is on a waiting list with 150 other families who are also eligible for voucher assistance. "You have no idea when your name will come up," she says. "I'll probably have to pay $120 a week, and it'll be hard to make ends meet."

The 2007 budget cuts would result in an even longer waiting list, says Deborah Chubb, executive director of Imagination Station.

"We have people that come in here every day who can't get on the list and can't get a job because they can't afford child care," she says. "We've also had a lot of problems where people get in and then get a raise and no longer qualify. That creates a revolving door because they can't afford to pay $140 a week and end up losing their jobs. It's an ugly death."

Imagination Station cares for 123 children ranging in ages from 6 weeks to 12 years and is open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. to accommodate working parents. "We work really hard to try to get low-income families in here because the kindergarten that is offered is only half a day. It's insane that you have to pick up your kid at 11:15 and take them to a child-care provider," Chubb says. "Imagine if you work at McDonald's. No one is going to let you run over and pick up your kid. I've offered one mom to pick up her kid because she can't do it."

At least 400,000 children nationwide will lose child care under Bush's budget, according to the National Women's Law Center. This is in addition to the 250,000 children who have lost child-care assistance since 2000. The budget predicts 1.8 million children will receive child care in 2011, compared with 2.45 million in 2000.

AIDS patients' waiting list

In June 1997, a few months after Richard Williams dropped out of college due to a bad case of meningitis and pneumonia, he found out he was HIV positive. Williams, now 32, was living with mother at the time, but she couldn't afford his medical needs, so he sought assistance from AIDS Alabama, an organization in Birmingham that helps people with case management, transportation, substance abuse, housing and education. Williams was accepted into the program and has been living in its housing program since August 2005.

"This program is a blessing," says Williams. "If I didn't have this program, I would probably be dead by now. When I got here, I was slowly dying. They provided me with a doctor, and everything turned around."

Williams is on a fixed income of $631 a month and pays $181 a month for rent and three meals per day. He's in the process of reapplying to college and plans to become a social worker.

AIDS Alabama manages two housing apartment complexes and serves 7,000 people who are HIV positive. Last year, the group had a $5 million budget; this year, its budget is $4.4 million. With even more cuts expected to hit Medicaid and Section 8 housing, the organization is bracing for the worst.

"All the cuts boggle my imagination," says Kathie Hiers, CEO of AIDS Alabama. "I have a moral dilemma when I have to tell somebody, 'I'm sorry, you're HIV positive, and you have to get on a waiting list to get the medicines you need to save your life.'"

AIDS Alabama, which hasn't received any new funds over the past five years, currently has 300 people on its medication waiting list. "Even people who are lucky enough to get on the list won't have access to all the drugs," says Hiers. "The amount of services we're able to provide is just pitiful. We went through a period when the state couldn't give us any money to provide transportation to our rural clients."

Half of the organization's clients live in rural areas and have no access to transportation. The average income for AIDS patients in Alabama is $7,950. "Unfortunately most budget cuts are directed at low-income people," says Hiers. "We're overburdened, and I don't know what's going to happen. It's sad that the richest country in the world will not prioritize health care in America."

The Senate recently passed a proposal that would add billions of dollars to Bush's proposed budget; the House is expected to release its budget after this week's recess. "We can't just talk dollars when you talk about these cuts. These are impacting real people," says Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition for Human Needs, a group that advocates for low-income and vulnerable people. "Bush's budget makes cuts in services that people need, while continuing tax breaks worth trillions of dollars that go overwhelmingly to the wealthiest among us."

A coalition of 1,200 organizations in all 50 states recently sent a letter (PDF) to politicians, urging them to rethink their priorities. But regardless of what happens to the upcoming budget, advocates say, the damage has already been done.

Rose Aguilar is a San Francisco-based journalist who recently returned from a six-month road trip through the so-called " red states ." She is writing a book about her journey.