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Another 'cliff'


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While analysis continues regarding the impact on our economy of the New Year's Day bipartisan agreement that was reached in Washington to address the most pressing issues related to the "fiscal cliff," we know that just around the corner are more negotiations and decisions to be made about the debt ceiling and federal spending. The impact on employment, healthcare, scientific research and the military are frequently highlighted in these public conversations, but we must not overlook the implications these funding decisions would have on social services agencies.

For several years now, social services agencies and other nonprofit organizations have seen the demand for services increase tremendously as a result of the prolonged economic downturn and associated financial challenges facing families. This overall increase in demand for social services has coincided with diminishing support from the state and federal government and limited funding from corporate and individual donors. With the recent holiday demands just behind us and the cold winter months ahead, all of us in the nonprofit and social services sector continue to feel the strains.

These challenges will only continue and become dire with the impending sequestration-related cuts that deeply impact domestic spending and funding to the programs nonprofits use to serve our most vulnerable residents. With nonprofits already stretched thin, it seems impossible that we will be able to serve the growing number of individuals and families in need of services.

Catholic Charities, the second largest provider of social services in the state -- second only to the Commonwealth itself -- is no exception. Currently our childcare programs serve more than 1,000 children each year in various settings in locations throughout the Greater Boston area, with 85 percent of families receiving subsidized care. Unfortunately this is only a small fraction of the 54,000 children of working families on the wait list with the state to receive subsidies. During the past two years, the demand for subsidized childcare in the state has more than doubled -- a program category that will be significantly defunded as a result of the budget sequestration.

According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, approximately 75 percent of public funds for early childhood education are federal dollars provided through the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which in Massachusetts are managed by the Department of Early Education and Care. Sequestration cuts would represent a more than $2 million reduction in funding for subsidies to child care programs that support low-income working families in Massachusetts, according to a report released by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. This represents nearly 1,200 fewer children the Commonwealth would have the capacity to serve.

Families enrolling in subsidized care programs do not have the capacity to pay the full child care bill, and without this program cannot go to work and earn a paycheck to put food on the table or heat their home. The vicious cycle then continues with the family turning to their local food pantry or social services agency for support, the same organizations that are strapped themselves. Defunding child care programs can impact not just the individual child's well-being and development, but increases the need for unemployment benefits and can permanently set back families who are on the road to self-sufficiency.

Nationally the impact of sequestration cuts is even grimmer. Separate from the childcare subsidies a cut in funding to Head Start programs alone would result in 96,000 fewer low-income children served, more than 1,500 of those in Massachusetts, according to the Harkin report. A cut in services would also put the jobs of more than 300 Head Start teachers and program administrators at risk right here in Massachusetts.

Congress and President Obama need to come together and take action to prevent so many underserved low-income families from falling into further dependency on social services programs. The numbers are staggering, and the personal stories of those who depend on the support of organizations such as ours to administer federal programs are heart-wrenching. This unraveling of federal budget politics has the ability to impact so many lives -- including too many of our most needy citizens who rely on our support to become self-sufficient.

Childcare is simply one example of how the sequestration cuts will impact the resources available to social services agencies to facilitate federal programs, with cuts to the Community Services Block Grants impacting the continuity of a range of general social services to more than 55,500 low-income Massachusetts residents. With the unemployment rate still hovering near eight percent, imminent action is needed to preserve these programs and prevent our fragile social services system from falling even deeper into an imbalance where the demand far outweighs our capacity to help.

Debbie Rambo, LICSW, is the president of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Boston.

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