State Representative Mary Lou Dickerson, who represents Queen Anne, Magnolia, and Ballard, is chair of the Health & Human Services Appropriations Committee.
When ship captains in the movies shout, “Women and children first!” they don’t mean throwing them in the water first. They mean that saving the women and children is a top priority. Shouldn’t saving women and children be a top priority for Washington State lawmakers?
That hasn’t been the case recently.
At a time when our economy has fueled growing needs for services, harsh budget cuts have hit women and children harder than anyone else.
The Washington State Budget and Policy Center reports that more than 90 percent of the $10 billion cut from state spending in recent years has come from education, and health and social services—where women represent nearly three-quarters of the workforce.
The tattered safety net At the same time, our safety net for vulnerable children and adults has been hit with devastating cuts, just when it was needed most. Tens of thousands of women and children have been thrown off the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) Program, in part because of inflexible time-limits ignored the realities of the Great Recession. From last February to November alone, 24,636 people were terminated form the program—16,000 of them children.
The program’s meager benefits have also been slashed, inflicting hardship on the families who can least afford it. Do you think you could you raise two children in Seattle on $478 a month? Of course not. Grant levels that low are a recipe for homelessness, and we are seeing the results.
Horrendous cuts to child-care assistance are also wreaking havoc—especially on single moms with children. The Working Connections Child Care caseload plunged 38 percent last year. We know that taking away child care pushes women and children into welfare. Is this the kind of state we want to be?
I must also mention family planning. Budget reductions have already shut the doors to family planning for 46,000 Washington women. These closed doors will mean more unintended pregnancies and more tragic birth outcomes, and will cost all of us more in the end.
Enough is enough! Washington’s economy is starting to mend. Customers are returning to businesses. People are getting jobs. Unfortunately, our state budget isn’t recovering as quickly, and we must fix another severe deficit before the Legislature wraps up work in March.
After $10 billion in previous cuts, there are no good choices. But we must try to save as many lifelines as we can in our safety net. And on this measure, there are some big differences between the budgets proposed by House Democrats and House Republicans.
My Republican friends point to a few budget items and claim their budget does a better job of protecting the vulnerable. Indeed, I applaud some of their choices. But let’s get real. Their budget cuts about twice as much as our budget cuts from the health and human services safety net—over $200 million more—and women and children would suffer heavily.
Republicans not only propose throwing 40,000 low-income adults off of the Basic Health Plan and into the ranks of the uninsured, they also propose:
· Throwing 2,000 more families off the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, by suddenly changing the rules to allow only 48 months of lifetime eligibility. They also want to cut TANF’s already inadequate benefits by yet another five percent.
· Throwing an additional 5,800 households out of the Working Connections Child Care program, pushing more families into welfare and putting more kids at risk.
· Further cuts to family planning.
· Eliminating neurodevelopmental centers to help children with special health needs.
· Eliminating the teen suicide prevention program.
None of these reductions is in the House Democratic budget.
In the next few weeks, you will hear much discussion of what different proposed state budgets do or fail to do. When you listen, try to think past the raw numbers and remember there are real lives at stake. There are better ways to keep our budget afloat than throwing more women and children overboard.