‘Safety net’ is under threat, local groups say

The “safety net” of social services is under threat by federal budget cuts, representatives from a dozen Boston-area organizations warned at a Sept. 15 forum in Jamaica Plain.

“You can’t walk down JP’s main streets without seeing someone in crisis,” said Sky Rose of Survivors, Inc., the coordinator of the “State of the Safety Net Forum” at First Baptist Church on Centre Street.

Local groups in attendance included Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), City Life/Vida Urbana, the Ecumenical Social Action Committee (ESAC) and the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants.

The safety net, according to Rose, is the infrastructure of social services that keeps families from falling into crisis. Crises include severe debt, home foreclosures, unmanageable medical bills, domestic violence, lack of quality education for children and teens, inadequate care for the elderly and disabled, and single mothers unable to afford childcare.

Rose said she created the forum to hear from organizations how their services are being affected by reduced federal funding, how this impacts the wider community, and what people can do about it.

Rose also noted that Boston’s social service organizations, while all working toward crisis prevention and rehabilitation, are not collaborating as much as they could.

Mel King, a legendary Boston community activist representing the Rainbow Coalition, opened the forum with a quote from President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union address: “It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.”

Michael Kane of the Mass Alliance of HUD Tenants, which represents residents in federally subsidized housing, explained that, on Jan. 2 of next year, federal funding for social service organizations will be slashed by 8 percent, a dramatic action that he said will affect all services to the poor and middle class. He cited such programs as food stamps, WIC, Head Start, legal services, unemployment, subsidized daycare and housing vouchers, and veterans services. Only Social Security, Medicaid and the Earned Income Tax Credit are exempt from those cuts.

The cuts are a result of the Budget Control Act of 2011, which was passed by Congress as a response to debate about raising the federal debt cap. The Budget Control Act cuts social services spending by over $900 billion over 10 years, and formed a subcommittee to find out how to reduce the deficit even further. The legislation also includes a 7.5 percent defense budget reduction.

Jen Lewis, lead program coordinator at Teen Empowerment of Egleston Square, said the cuts will lead to higher drop-out rates, which in turn will see a rise in crime, joblessness and family violence.   “We will raise a generation of adults that are disempowered and struggling,” said Lewis.

Though their organization’s individual struggles vary, the speakers unanimously acknowledged the interconnectedness of their causes and the importance of coming together. Their common message was clear: the community needs to wake up and understand why cutting vital services to the poor affects not just some, but all of its citizens.

“This economic system is not working for us,” said Curdina Hill, executive director of the housing rights organization City Life, “a system that serves the needs of the 1 percent and leaves us fighting each other…to stay alive.”

Besides contacting federal officials, Kane proposed another course of action, which is to vote in favor of the Budget for All non-binding referendum on the Nov. 6 election ballot. It orders state officials to petition Congress to increase taxes on the wealthy, end the Afghanistan War and invest in jobs.

“That’s the solution,” said Kane, “not cutting social programs that people rely on.”

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