Recession Forces States To Turn Budget Ax On Programs To Support Children, Families

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From psychiatric aid to a program that helps poor families buy school clothes, services that support children outside the classroom are being chipped away by the budget ax as states grapple with the impact of the recession, advocates say.

The cuts have come despite increasing levels of attention and rhetoric about children's issues from policymakers in recent months, and, experts contend, ample evidence that such programs can bolster students' performance in school.

Interviews with research and advocacy groups on children's issues in more than half the states revealed that services such as health care, foster care, welfare grants, and energy assistance were dealt harsh blows in the last budget cycle.

Analysts warn that the cutbacks could create new problems for the schools, which are already struggling with flat or reduced state education aid.

"The cuts are very unfortunate because they directly affect the living and environmental conditions of children who we expect to learn in our schools," said Cynthia G. Brown, director of the resource center on educational equity of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "It makes the jobs of the schools more difficult if we don't have these kinds of supporting services that help kids live in healthy and supportive family environments."

Observers also note, however, that the children's- services reductions reflect the "painful" choices confronting states in tight fiscal times. The cuts were not made indiscriminately, they argue, but were the product of competing pressures to balance state budgets, fund federal mandates, maintain core services for rising numbers of vulnerable children and families--and placate public resistance to new taxes.

Cuts in children's services represent "the realities of state and federal budgeting" at a time when projected state deficits are rising and systems are being strained by increased numbers of vulnerable children, said Sheri Steisel, director of the human-services committee of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

"These are very painful cuts and they are not being done in a capricious way," said Ms. Steisel, who noted that funds for prisons, Medicaid, and education have garnered the most consistent increases in state funding in recent years.

Moreover, children's programs were not left entirely unprotected in this year's bruising budget battles. In a number of states, vigorous advocacy efforts helped to "hold harmless" essential children's services or restore proposed cuts.

Magnified by Recession

Still, the impact of the cuts can only be magnified by the recession, which has greatly increased the need for services in many areas.

In a survey scheduled for release next week by the Child Welfare League of America, states reported substantial increases in the numbers of children in poverty, referrals of child-abuse and neglect cases to child-protective services, and children in state custody, said Michael R. Petit, director of the C.W.L.A.'S Center for Program Excellence.

A large number of those polled also said their states had reduced children-and-family services or held them level, contributing tea "vicious cycle" of unmet need, Mr. Petit said.

In addition, any partial victories scored by children's advocates were often offset by deeper cuts in programs affecting family life, such as welfare payments, homeless programs, and utility allowances.

The California legislature, for example, this year approved new funding to expand preschool programs and mental-health services for atrisk young children, bring health and social services to schools, and aid junior-high drug-education efforts. It also gave counties greater leeway to channel foster-care funds into "family preservation" programs that provide intensive in-home services to families at risk.

But even there, "The new measures, although they will be helpful, are generally going to be helpful for much smaller numbers of children than will be hurt by the overall budget," said Valerie Purnell, governmental-relations coordinator for Children Now, a California group.

Such victories also remain tenuous as states eye additional cuts to ease deficit projections that in some cases have risen substantially just since the legislatures completed work on this year's budgets.

"I'm terrified, as many other advocates are terrified," said Elie Ward, deputy director of Statewide Youth Advocacy of New York, "that many of the things we had restored will be up for grabs again."

'Kids Are Suffering'

Programs affected by state spending reductions cut across a wide swath of health and human services.

The cuts "strike at families' basic livelihood," said Frank Farrow, director of children's-services policy for the Washington-based Center for the Study of Social Policy. "There's no question that kids are suffering even in the states trying to safeguard them," he noted.

According to Children Now, California this year cut monthly grants under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program by about 4.4 percent, affecting 1.4 million children, and implemented a 4 percent across-the-board cut in state spending that took millions of dollars from the operating budgets of child-welfare and health services. In addition, the state put new limits on eligibility for aid to the homeless.

Like California, Michigan spared and is planning to expand its family-preservation services.

But Michigan also reduced A.F.D.c. grants by 10.7 percent from their October 1990 base, dropping the maximum monthly grant for a family of three from $488 to $436.

Because a special heating allowance supplementing the grants was eliminated, "it will be even more noticeable to recipients in the winter months," said Patricia Sorenson, senior research associate for the Michigan League for Human Services. The welfare cuts will affect about 462,000 children, she said.

The state also cut community-outreach services for child-health screening and pared to the bare bones an "emergency needs" program that counties had tapped to erect emergency shelters, help poor families buy food or clothing or make rent payments, or pay for home repairs.

The Michigan budget also cut or terminated several contracts for services involving the prevention and treatment of child abuse and neglect.

Private Providers Cut

The Massachusetts legislature, meanwhile, cut out $11 million in contracts for private social-service providers, shifting responsibility for the additional caseloads to the state's social-services department.

Lawmakers also dropped a special clothing allowance of about $150 per child for A.F.D.C. families, which helped furnish children with school clothes. The program "was cut right before school started," said Stephen R. Bing, director of the Massachusetts Advocacy Center.

A $7-million cut in youth services, he added, resulted in the loss of slots in facilities for delinquents and cuts in treatment and mentoring programs for youths.

The state also scrapped psychiatric services for children under Medicaid and is eyeing a proposal to close its only psychiatric hospital for children.

The only program of "direct relevance to kids" to get an increase was a program offering prenatal care to women ineligible for Medicaid, Mr. Bing said.

Children's programs fared better in Illinois, which provided funds to expand state preschool programs and bolster child-welfare services.

Advocates also succeeded in saving a $20-million program, targeted for elimination, that encourages local governments to contribute toward a wide range of social programs.

But an energy-assistance program for low-income families was cut by two-thirds. "We're looking at 100,000 families losing $300 to $500 per winter heating season," said Jerome Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children.

Mr. Stermer also said medical providers "were slapped with a 5 percent reduction in rates" that will make it harder for poor children to get health services under Medicaid.

'Dramatic Reduction' Seen

In Iowa, a 3 percent across-the-board cut triggered a "dramatic reduction'' in home-based child-welfare services and layoffs of human services staff, said Charles Bruner, director of the state's Child and Family Policy Center.

An increase in the number of children in foster care or receiving child welfare services, Mr. Bruner noted, made the impact of such cuts "even greater than it would normally be."

Children's services were hit hard by budget cuts in Maryland, where the legislature slashed $28 million from health- and human-services programs directly affecting children, and millions more from programs that indirectly affect them, according to Amy Blank, a public-policy specialist for Maryland Advocates for Children and Youth.

The cuts included $7.6 million in A.F.D.C. grants; $1.8 million in school-based programs addressing such issues as dropout prevention, child abuse, and suicide prevention; $1.6 million in state aid for school meals; and $1.1 million in aid for local family- and child health programs, and $500,000 in services for youths involved with the juvenile courts.

Although Kentucky in recent years has made "major strides" in bolstering early-childhood, prenatal, and child-welfare programs, some of the gains may be jeopardized by a round of human-services cuts that may have to be ordered to balance the budget, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates.

In addition, the group's executive director suggested, the expansion of a "model" family-preservation program may be put on hold. "We're basically robbing Peter to pay Paul," David Richart said.

Lobbying Counterattacks

Advocacy efforts in some states helped to restore cuts initially proposed by governors.

New Jersey had targeted children's services for a 10 percent cut, noted Ciro Scalera, executive director of the Association for the Children of New Jersey. But lawmakers "were able to hit their mark primarily through administrative reductions" without cutting back services, he said. They even approved small increases and new initiatives in some areas.

North Carolina programs fared even better, with the legislature approving some $22 million in funds for children's mental-health services, family preservation, and child-abuse-related services, and committing more dollars toward prenatal services and nutrition programs for women, infants, and children.

John S. Niblock, president of the North Carolina Child Advocacy Institute, said a "concerted lobbying effort" and several well-publicized "horror cases" of abused children going without help played a role in holding off cuts.

In New York, "a real push"by advocacy groups helped to restore about 75 percent of the cuts initially proposed in children's services, including state social-services block-grant money and programs for children at risk of court involvement, Ms. Ward of Statewide Youth Advocacy said.

But, while "for the most part to date, programs for vulnerable children and families have been held harmless," Ms. Ward noted that the legislature is going back into session shortly to revise its 1992 budget in the face of new deficit estimates.

Litigation Tactic

In addition to lobbying lawmakers, advocacy groups in Illinois and other states are also making effective use of lawsuits against state child-welfare systems in order to exert pressure on legislatures to preserve or expand funds for foster-care or family-preservation services.

The Child Welfare League's upcoming report will show a "sharp increase in class-action litigation being brought against states because of a lack of appropriate responsiveness," Mr. Petit noted.

Another court victory for advocates came late last month in Florida, where the state supreme court ruled that Gov. Lawton Chiles and the state cabinet did not have the authority to order cuts to balance the budget. The cuts would have affected childcare services for teenage parents, training programs for substance abuse-prevention counselors, prenatal and perinatal health care for at-risk pregnant women, and services for developmentally disabled children, said Jack Levine, executive director of the Florida Center for Children and Youth.

Instead, Mr. Levine noted, the court "left the process of cuts in the legislature's lap," and a special session is scheduled to begin next month.

Federal, School Change Urged

Advocates in other states, such as Massachusetts, noted that reductions in state child-care spending had been offset by new federal childcare block-grant funds, even though regulations bar the supplanting of state dollars with new federal aid.

More commonly, however, the federal government is seen as partially responsible for the budget problems.

The "exporting of the federal deficit to the states," as well as the rising costs of federal mandates such as Medicaid, have "crashed states' budgets" in recent years, Ms. Steisel of the N.c.s.L. argued.

Many states are attempting to protect children's programs by "cutting general-assistance versus infant-mortality" programs, Ms. Steisel observed, but are often forced to choose "which of two equally important services should be kept."

Mr. Petit of the Child Welfare League noted that the group's upcoming report on state children's services cuts will urge the Congress and the Bush Administration to "take a much stronger position on behalf of children's issues."

Mr. Petit also said dwindling children's-services budgets should increase the impetus for schools to serve "as a host site for the delivery of health and social services" and spur collaboration among schools and social agencies.

"In order for us all to make it through the current budget fiasco nationwide," Ms. Purnell of California Now said, "it is going to require a concerted effort and everyone working together rather than being so easily fractionalized."

Vol. 11, Issue 11, Pages 1, 17

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