In Olympia, the House and Senate are working out their budget differences, getting down to detailed negotiations. It’s tough, often thankless, work to sort through the clamor and competing priorities. It’s necessary to focus on specifics and make trade-offs to craft a balanced budget that we all hope works for the people of Washington state. Whether we agree with the final package, our legislators deserve thanks for taking on the task.
From our vantage point at the YWCA, we often see how seemingly discrete budget items and policies connect in the lives of women and families. We invite state budget negotiators to step back from the revenue and expense line items for a moment and look at these big-picture budget matters with an eye for the bigger picture:
Shelby was on track to attend medical school when she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and became temporarily homeless. Financial support she now receives through the Aged, Blind & Disabled (ABD) program helps her keep stable housing at YWCA Opportunity Place. The Senate's proposed budget eliminates ABD.
In an effort to save the program, Shelby testified at the state capital earlier this month. "For me, having ABD means I can take care of the basics. I use my $197 cash grant for rent, for bus fare, cleaning supplies and other personal necessities," Shelby told lawmakers. (You can see video of Shelby’s testimony at Firesteelwa.org.) If the ABD cash grants end and Shelby — or any of the 20,000 other Washingtonians receiving ABD — end up back on the street, the cost to our communities will be far greater than $197 per month each.
Research by the Corporation for Supportive Housing confirms what we know from experience: Homeless individuals make higher use of jails and emergency rooms than the rest of us. Just two nights in jail will cost more than a single month of ABD cash assistance. Research from the Corporation for Supporting Housing has shown that one night in the hospital will cost more than a year on ABD.
Lindsey (a pseudonym, like the three names that follow) earns $14.67/hour as a part-time administrative assistant and is working toward a college degree in the evenings. A single mom with three active boys, Lindsey also has a history of homelessness, probation and domestic violence. But she is turning her life around, thanks to the YWCA’s TANF-funded Community Jobs program.
Mariel and her pre-school-age son live at YWCA Family Village Issaquah, a Housing Trust Fund project, after enduring many bouts with homelessness. She is enrolled in computer technology training to land a higher paying job.
Tasha ran away from an abusive home, bounced around the foster care system, never got past ninth grade and made more bad choices along the way. Now she and her two young children live in transitional housing at YWCA Family Village Redmond where Tasha is working on her GED.
Geri and her six children escaped an abusive relationship, with some help from YWCA domestic violence advocates. Geri went back to school and updated her nursing license. She now has a full-time job earning $35/hour.
These mothers and their families all need the state’s Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) to access the education and jobs that are stabilizing their lives and improving prospects for themselves and their children. The Senate’s proposed budget would reduce the maximum number of families using WCCC at any one time by 4,000 — from 33,000 to 29,000.
WCCC helps low-income working families pay for child care. Parents pay, too, on a sliding scale based on their income. The maximum annual WCCC payment for a toddler is $9,792; for a preschooler $8,208. Compare that with the cost of foster care: the national average cost per child for one year is $19,107 — or $25,782 if administrative costs are included. If Tasha doesn’t get an education and a job so that she can provide for her children, she may well lose custody and those children will enter the foster care system at a much higher cost to the state.
Or consider the economic effect of higher wages. What if Lindsey, Mariel and Geri had to stay home to care for their children now, forego education and training, and spend much of their working lives piecing together minimum-wage jobs? The $5.63 difference between minimum wage and the $14.67 that Lindsey and others like her can earn after modest training adds up to $11,710 a year. The extra money improves their economic self-sufficiency and goes back into our state’s economy.
Focusing like a laser on specific expenditures can reduce line items in the state budget. Taking a wider view helps us see that some cuts are likely to shift and increase costs to other systems in communities around the state and undermine our goals for investing in education and a skilled workforce.
There is a price to be paid — in both cash and human terms — for taking a narrow view of what saves or costs money in the state budget. If taking the wider view requires additional revenue, those of us working with vulnerable women and families will understand and support that tough choice.