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Cutting the Safety Net

By Joe Wessels · April 8th, 2009 · Wessels

I’ve never completely understood why some people think that spending on social programs is “wasting money.”

Every detractor is armed and ready with some special story about how the system utterly and completely failed, taking their hard-earned tax money and giving it away to selfish, undeserving people who will never change their bad habits and, worse, are just waiting for the next handout.

As a liberal guy who tends to vote about 95 percent of the time with mostly mainstream Democrats, I can say unapologetically that handing out money over and over again to those who take and never think about changing themselves is flat-out criminal. Conservative friends, please go and pick yourselves up off the floor.

Cincinnati city administration officials, though, have taken this reasoning to new heights, canceling large swaths of funding for several agencies providing critical social services to our community.

The shit-hitting-the-fan started on April Fool’s Day (no joke) when letters appeared in mailboxes informing groups like the YWCA Battered Women’s Shelter that funding would be drastically cut — in this case, by more than $140,000. Elsewhere, redundant funding (we have a park board and a recreation commission) and bloated budgets (hey, Cincinnati Police Department, you get funded more than all other city departments combined) remain at status quo.

At the same time, the only battered women’s shelter for homeless citizens in Hamilton County has to figure out how to hold the biggest bake sale in the history of bake sales. And that wasn’t the only local social services agency in a panic.

[See Margo Pierce's related story on budget cuts, "Sacrificing Children," here.] 

Councilman Greg Harris wisely suggested April 2 that money be taken from the public safety budget to maintain YWCA funding at promised levels.

Women getting abused is, after all, a public safety issue. That program’s funding gap easily could be made up by selling, say, three police cruisers.

There’s plenty of money to be found by asking city retirees to pay more than a measly 4 percent of their ever-inflating and unpredictable health care costs while the city forks over 96 percent. They’ve thus far refused to help out, with the passive help of a City Council devoid of political backbone behind its bullet-proof dais. Those of you lucky enough to have any part of your health care paid for, are you paying more than 4 percent?

There are rarely any easy answers when making budget-cutting decisions. Those who sit at computers or who otherwise pontificate in the hallways outside Council chambers or in coffee shops rarely know what it’s like to sit in the nine chairs on City Hall’s third floor. Or in the city manager’s office on the first floor. I certainly don’t.

But sometimes decisions appear so stunningly off-target that they beg prodding. We’re talking about real citizens here with real needs.

Often the same people who call for the end of social services funding by government claim to follow a Judeo-Christian principle. I call this the hug-you-in-the-church-run-you-over-in-the-parking-lot sect. Perhaps those Bible verses really haven’t stuck as strongly as they should have.

Sure, there are going to be people who take advantage of the system. Some programs won’t run efficiently. There will be corruption. Nothing new there. But do away with the whole safety net?

And if your answer is “build more jails,” you really have no heart. How does locking someone up become his first chance at reformation and redemption?

Police officers and firefighters aren’t social workers. Jails aren’t 12-step programs. Judges aren’t psychotherapists.

Spending more money on jails virtually ends any chance at a productive life for those who have strayed off course or never were on the right course to begin with. Getting them help before they become hopeless is far cheaper and more humane.

Let this Cincinnati funding disaster be a lesson. Let’s keep our eye on the results achieved when social services are financed well and given our full support, publicly and politically.

CONTACT JOE WESSELS: joe@joewessels.net



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