Testimony of the New York State Catholic Conference regarding the 2011-2012 Human Services Budget

Published on February 16th, 2011

Presented on Behalf of the Council of Catholic Charities Directors by

Earl Eichelberger
Director for Catholic Charities
New York State Catholic Conference

Albany, New York
February 16, 2011

 Introduction

Good morning!  My name is Earl Eichelberger and I serve as the Director for Catholic Charities at the New York State Catholic Conference and Executive Secretary to the New York State Council of Catholic Charities Directors.  The New York State Catholic Conference represents the Bishops of the eight dioceses of New York State in matters of public policy.  In the human service arena, the expertise, experience and advice of the Council of Catholic Charities Directors guides the Conference.  The Catholic Church is the largest non-profit provider of education, health care and human services in the state.  Catholic Charities programs exist in all eight dioceses to provide services to people in need.  Our Catholic tradition compels us to be active participants in the civic life of our community, to fashion a more just world that upholds the dignity of every individual and to serve those in need.  The needs of the poor and vulnerable must not be ignored.  A key measure of any society is how the most vulnerable members are cared for; those with the greatest need are due special attention.  There is a long history in New York State of government and not-for-profit providers collaborating to deliver services in a cost-effective manner.  This public/private partnership in support of the poor and vulnerable must be maintained.

I am here on behalf of a “special interest.”  I am unapologetically here to speak on behalf of the poor and vulnerable.  Catholic social teaching requires me to do so.  The Old Testament tells me to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.  Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9)  The New Testament tells me we will be judged by what we do for the poor and the vulnerable when the Lord said “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for these least brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40) The U.S. Catholic Bishops wrote, “As Christians, we are called to respond to the needs of all our brothers and sisters, but those with the greatest need require the greatest response.” (Economic Justice for All, A Pastoral Letter 1986) And Pope Benedict XVI, in his first encyclical, reminded us, “The Church cannot and must not take upon herself the political battle to bring about the most just society possible. She cannot and must not replace the State. Yet at the same time she cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. She has to play her part through rational argument and she has to reawaken the spiritual energy without which justice, which always demands sacrifice, cannot prevail and prosper.” (God Is Love, 2005) It is in that context that I come before you today.

Background

In 1917, recognizing the significant role of the Catholic Church’s charitable efforts to serve the poor in our State, the New York State Legislature passed a Special Act formally incorporating Catholic Charities agencies in each of the eight Dioceses in New York State.   In 2009 Catholic Charities in New York State provided total services valued at more than $1.7 billion.  We provided approximately 1.3 million services to more than 1 million persons of all faiths and all age categories.   We provide services in each of the state’s 62 counties, and have a long-term commitment to both inner-city and rural communities.  Catholic Charities employs more than 22,000 people, and utilizes the services of more than 18,000 volunteers.  Clearly Catholic Charities’ presence in New York State is not only extensive but indispensible.

As the charitable human services arm of the Catholic Church, Catholic Charities works closely with the 1,500 parishes (with some 7.3 million parishioners) located in every community throughout the state.  Parish communities are important resources in the delivery of emergency and community-building services.  New Yorkers in need regularly come to Catholic parishes with requests for assistance when they feel they have no place else to turn, and the parishes are serving as the true safety net for these individuals and families.

In 2006, Catholic Charities USA developed and produced a policy paper entitled “Poverty in America: A Threat to the Common Good”.  That paper opens with the following statement: “Poverty in the United States is a moral and social wound in the soul of our country.  It is an ongoing disaster that threatens the health and well-being of our nation.  We have the resources, experience, and knowledge to virtually eliminate poverty, especially long-term poverty, but we do not yet have the political will.”  That document sets a goal of steadily decreasing poverty to at least cut it in half by the year 2020.  The NYS Council of Catholic Charities Directors supports this initiative and provided the impetus for the national campaign by encouraging the Roman Catholic Bishops of New York State to issue a pastoral letter on society’s responsibility to the poor and vulnerable entitled “Restoring the Covenant” in 2005.  In that document the Bishops’ pointed out “that in fiscally difficult times sacrifices must be made by all and not unfairly borne by those most in need”.  They also state that “we understand that to honor this Covenant will require both reallocation and enhancement of public and private resources.”  With that as a backdrop we encourage all to work together to create a more just society.

Current Fiscal Situation

The New York State Council of Catholic Charities Directors wishes to express our understanding for and acknowledgement of the difficult decisions that you and your partners in government face as we move into the future.  At the same time, we urge you to continue to seek strategies that do the least harm possible to our most vulnerable citizens.  Many factors have brought us to the present moment of deep economic distress.  It is a fact that during the years of “plenty,” the gap between the working poor and the rest of society only widened.  One need look no further than around our own state to see the rise in poverty levels in urban and rural communities.  In short, the poor did not benefit previously and should not be negatively impacted currently.  Social policies and budgetary cuts which further deteriorate the quality of life of our most vulnerable citizens will only increase the cost to our state and the neighborhoods and communities encompassed therein.

Prior to the current economic crisis, our agencies have expended considerable voluntary dollars in meeting the needs of the poor, including the subsidization of a variety of state and local funding initiatives.  The last two years have seen a significant spike in requests for assistance, particularly in the areas of basic necessities, housing and employment.  While we will continue to do our best, we know that we will not be able to fill the gap that will be created by a further sharp decline in state support.  We respectfully urge all parties to proceed cautiously and to keep in mind that our state has a legal, moral and ethical obligation to care for the poor and vulnerable.  As Article XVII Section 1 of the New York State Constitution states, “The aid, care, and support of the needy are public concerns and shall be provided by the state…”  We also continue to see many New Yorkers who require the assistance of government to move toward self sufficiency.  In difficult economic times the needs for services increase.  We are concerned that the poor and vulnerable populations, who are so often voiceless in the halls of government, have the supports that are necessary to live a life of dignity.

Proposed Executive Budget

The Executive Budget that was presented by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo on February 1, 2011 was described as “a plan that reduces our state’s current year deficit without raising taxes. The budget outlines a broad effort to redesign and reinvent our state government with the goal of producing long term cost savings and better services to our people.”  We hope these goals can be achieved, but are concerned about some of the proposals presented.  Of course there are many ideas that we believe are worthy of support and in some instances long overdue.

Winston Churchill described Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”  The same might be said of the Executive Budget.  There is much that is not clear or is put off for later decisions.  The proposal calls for a reduction of $2.85 billion for Medicaid spending.  How that reduction is to be achieved is left up to the Medicaid Redesign Task Force to determine.  In the area of behavioral health and developmental disabilities services, some of the options we understand are on the table for consideration make a lot of sense.  Other options raise concern about the impact they would have on services currently being delivered.

We recognize that there is a significant deficit that must be addressed.  These are difficult times and tough choices have to be made.  However, we strongly feel that those who are currently underserved can’t be asked to give even more.  The basic public assistance grant that had not been increased for 18 years until 2009 is slated for delay.  We find that unacceptable.  The third year of incremental increases was scheduled for July 1, 2011, and the delay would move the implementation back to July 1, 2012, saving a reported $29.3 million.  The increase has to be looked at in context.  The scheduled increase was making up for the extended period that the public assistant grant was kept flat.  With the scheduled increase, the adjustment would amount to a modest increase of less than 1.5 percent per year over a twenty year period.

The implementation of full family sanctions is also of concern.  Currently a household where an adult is non-compliant with work requirements receives a reduced level of benefits.  The proposed change would mean that a family with an adult who was non-compliant with work requirements on two or more occasions would lose all benefits.  It is our belief that a number of children will require placement at an increase cost to the state if this proposal is implemented.

We are also concerned about cuts to many programs that have previously been supported by TANF dollars in the Office of Temporary and Disabilities proposed budget.  Approximately $70 million in funding for programs last year have been eliminated in this year’s proposed budget.  These cuts will seriously erode the quality of life for our sisters and brothers who find themselves at risk of homelessness, who are seeking help with providing for their families and who are struggling to ensure quality care for their children so that they can work.

Cuts to housing programs that were supported with TANF funds, such as the Supportive Housing for Families and Young Adults, Homeless Prevention, Emergency Homeless and the Supplemental Homeless Intervention Program, will end up costing our local and state governments more in emergency shelter costs.  This is on top of cuts already absorbed by these programs in recent years.   The funding for the Single Room Occupancy, Homeless Intervention Program, Homeless Prevention Program and Support for AIDS Housing are combined into a Housing Assistance appropriation.  All four programs provide valuable services and could use additional funding.  It is not clear how the agency will determine priorities across and among these programs with $1 million less to spend.

The proposed redesign of Neighborhood and Rural Preservation Program funding raises a number of questions beyond the reduced level of funding.  We believe these programs continue to provide a valuable resource in both urban and rural communities.  The integrity of these not-for-profit programs needs to be protected and existing providers who are doing good work should be allowed to continue providing housing counseling and preservation services.  The proposed reduction in funding is also on top of additional cuts that have been imposed in recent years.  There does appear to be some recognition of a continuing need for affordable housing and that is appreciated.

The elimination of state funding for NYC Work Advantage Program and reduced funding for the NYC Adult Homeless Shelter System would appear to be shifting responsibility for funding these programs to New York City at a time when they may be ill prepared to take on this added responsibility.

We also are concerned by the elimination of funding for Advantage Schools and the Summer Youth Employment Program.  The Advantage Schools program serves students statewide and is critical to connecting youth development to academic improvement and to providing a safe and nurturing environment for children and teenagers after school.  The Summer Youth Employment program keeps youth constructively occupied and learning employment skills during the break from school in July and August.  We must continue to make these investments in our children, in our future.

We are concerned about the elimination of TANF funding for Transitional Jobs and Wheels to Work programs.  These programs make it possible for employers to hire individuals who need training to fully perform the required tasks and for employees to get to locations where employment may be available.  Funding for the Refugee Resettlement Assistance Program is also eliminated.  These programs assist refugees and asylees with services leading to the attainment of citizenship status and developing self sufficiency skills.  The list goes on and there are no easy answers.  But we must do better.

Juvenile justice reform is needed and is a priority agenda item for the Council of Catholic Charities Directors and the NYS Catholic Conference during the current year.  As with most things “the devil is in the details.”  The state’s current juvenile justice system serves neither the offender nor the society well and must be reformed.  Prevention programs for at-risk and court involved youth are critical and we must recommit funds for them, to better serve both the youth and to prevent crimes before they occur.  Quality rehabilitative services for youth in juvenile justice facilities need to be developed to prevent recidivism. This saves money and lives and improves the quality of life for the entire community.  A cut in child welfare funding seems to run counter to these objectives.  Eliminating funding for contract programs, including Home Visiting and Community Optional Preventive Services, and utilizing half of the savings to create a Primary Prevention Incentive Program will reduce preventive services.  Likewise, reducing the state share of the Adoption Subsidy may reduce the number of difficult-to-place youth going into permanent homes and staying out of the juvenile justice system. The elimination of funding for the Maternity and Early Childhood Foundation raises similar concerns.  This program, which has a 27-year history of assisting young, low-income mothers deliver healthy babies and learn how to care for them, represents quality prevention services at an even earlier stage.  The elimination of funding for a Safe Habour for sexually exploited youth is also difficult to comprehend.  It took many years to get funding established and before it gets off the ground funding is eliminated.

One of the few revenue enhancers in the proposed budget is an increase in the fee for child abuse and maltreatment background checks.  The current fee of $5 would rise to $60.  This added cost in most cases would have to be borne by not-for-profit agencies.  We agree the background checks should be performed, but their cost should be reimbursed by the state and not absorbed by service providers.

In the areas of alcohol and substance abuse treatment, the available treatment options will not keep pace with the existing need for services.  The same is true for mental health services.  People are struggling and are in need of assistance.  We as a state cannot abandon them.  We support the concept of performance- and evidenced-based contracting.  However, quality programming cannot be done on the cheap.

Many of the direct care human services employees who would have benefited from 1.2 percent Cost of Living Adjustment that has been again postponed are among the working poor.  This supplement has been delayed too long as is and in most cases would go right back into the economy at a time that it is much needed.  The desired goal of “shared sacrifice” sounds equitable, but it is clear that not everyone has the same capacity to contribute to the effort.  In the same way, many of the service cuts appear to be “penny wise and pound foolish.”  The short term savings ultimately result in greater long term cost.

The state agency mergers that are included in the Executive Budget are believed to be just the tip of the iceberg.  The merger of the Department of Correctional Services and the Division of Parole is purported to have a goal of seamless assessment and service delivery within the criminal justice system.  We will work with the new Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to address factors essential to successful community re-entry.  The closing of facilities will be difficult, but necessary to reduce excess capacity.  The taskforce to recommend the specific facilities to be closed must look toward maximizing rehabilitative services at a reduced cost.

The Spending and Government Efficiency (SAGE) Commission is tasked with identifying other rightsizing opportunities to reduce agencies, authorities and commissions by 20 percent.  Other mergers as they are proposed will need to achieve the efficiencies and cost savings laid out in the Executive Budget while having a dual focus of maintaining quality and reducing cost.  Not an easy chore, but necessary and possible.

It appears that there is a desire on just about everyone’s part to reduce unnecessary mandates, redundant reporting and duplicative reviews that add cost to the human services system without improving services.  Such an effort should produce many benefits in both efficiency and quality.  We need to treat this crisis as an opportunity, and if done properly, all parties benefit.  The recipient of services and the taxpayers that pay for them (not mutually exclusive categories) can both end up in a better place.

Catholic’s from across the state will be visiting the Capitol en masse on Tuesday, March 8, for the NYS Catholic Conference’s Public Policy Forum; and we will be advocating for funding for these programs that provide necessary services for the poor and vulnerable.  If we can be helpful in making clear the impact the absence of these programs will have, we stand ready to do so.

Conclusion

It is our hope that humane and wise decisions will be made to deal with the current crisis, decisions that do not add further stress and hopelessness to those already struggling with great burdens.  We can and must find a way to arrive at a balanced budget that does not further jeopardize the poor and vulnerable members of our society, a budget that affirms the dignity of all our state’s people.  We stand ready to work with you in achieving this laudable goal.

Thank you for the opportunity to share our thoughts and concerns as the Legislature reviews the difficult choices that are ahead.

Be Sociable, Share!