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Government Officials Should "Think Twice Before They Slice"

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A powerful storm is headed toward the United States and could cause terrible devastation in its path. I'm not talking about Hurricane Isaac. I am referring to predictions last week from the Congressional Budget Office that a second recession could be right around the corner.

This news concerns me. Nonprofits in our region continue to struggle to meet the existing demand from no-, low- and middle- income families for food, shelter, emergency financial support for utilities and prescription medications that keep people with life-threatening illnesses like asthma, diabetes and hypertension alive.

In the words of Judith Dittman, executive director of Alternative House, the only emergency shelter for homeless teens in Northern Virginia: "There is talk about another recession, but for the young people we work with, the recession never stopped. It never stopped for the moms and kids in our community-based programs. They still don't have enough to eat. They are struggling to find shoes as their kids grow out of them. We are distributing more food than ever before."

I checked in with Joan Woods, Director of Development and Communications at Bright Beginnings, a child and family development center that serves homeless infants, toddlers and preschoolers whose families are living in shelters and transitional housing in the District. She told me they are seeing many families who have nothing to fall back on when they face a setback. Joan shared the story of a married couple with two children (and twins on the way) who came to Bright Beginnings while they were living in their van. They had been staying with family and friends, but many did not have room for four additional people. (Happily, after the twins were born, all four children were enrolled at Bright Beginnings, which provided onsite social services and connected them to food, clothing and other much needed services) Without jobs and a permanent stable place to live, this family -- like many others -- faces generational poverty.

In Prince George's County, 85 percent of the clients at Mary's Center's new clinic do not have health insurance. "These are people who were born and raised in Prince George's -- some are second and third generation," says President and CEO Maria Gomez. If young people are too sick to go to school and graduate, the workforce will suffer. "When you neglect the health of a community, you neglect the well being of a nation," she said.

In Fairfax (as well as other parts of the region) the June derecho impacted an already stressed community. Dominion Power reported the largest number of customers without power for a significant amount of time ever. "The impact of the storm will be felt for some time," said Reston Interfaith CEO Kerrie Wilson. The impact on the workforce is particularly compelling. "Many minimum wage and low-wage workers who are in the hospitality or service professions were not able to go to work for days - with no promise of 'paid' storm leave, no tips," said Wilson. "For people who live week to week, with limited assistance available, the economic storm for their households is even greater."

And while the unemployment rate continues to drop, many residents of our region face much higher unemployment rates than they did at the start of the recession, according to a study by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute. In recent months, for instance, unemployment fell more for DC's White, non-Hispanic residents than for Black residents, and more for college-educated residents than for those with lower levels of education. At the current rate of decline since the end of 2011, it will take until 2015 for unemployment among these groups to reach pre-recession levels.

In addition, unemployment fell fairly significantly for low-wage workers and single parents in the last quarter but is still far above pre-recession levels. The decline since the peak has offset only 33 percent of the recession-led increase for low- workers. For single parents, the decline has offset half of the recession-led increase in households without children but only 15 percent of the recession-led increase in households with children.

What, then, can we do?

Going into the next local and national budget cycles, we should urge government officials to continue to "think twice before they slice" critical human services.

And while individual and corporate philanthropy cannot make up for government cuts, it can make a difference when it is invested a manner that will catalyze positive change. Investments that ensure access to quality education as well as those that provide increased employment opportunities through workforce development that actually leads to a job, help to ensure that all residents have a fair shot at our region's prosperity.