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Viewing Federal Budget Cuts Through the Eyes of Mercy

May 11, 2011

By Marianne Comfort, Institute Justice Team

When I need to get a true picture of the impact of federal budget cuts, I don’t take out a calculator to add up the billions of dollars being discussed or even look to policy reports for explanations. I check in with people like Sister Maureen Mulcrone, Sister Marilyn Ross and Richard Rach who are providing educational support, housing and mental health services to struggling individuals and families.

It’s in reading about their programs and corresponding with them and their staffs that I get worried, really worried, about the direction all the emphasis on cuts to a certain category of spending is leading our nation.

Rather than considering a mix of tax increases and cuts that include reductions in military spending, too many lawmakers are focusing their attention on cutting the small fraction of the budget called non-defense discretionary funding. That portion of the budget includes the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), which communities use to provide services in low-income neighborhoods. Services like Mercy Education Program in Detroit, where Sister Maureen works, and Holy Name Housing Corporation in Omaha, which Sister Marilyn oversees.

Congress cut CDBG by 16 percent in the 2011 federal budget passed in April after months of negotiations. President Obama proposed cutting CDBG by another 7.5 percent ($300 million) in the 2012 fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. The House of Representatives passed a budget for 2012 that includes reducing CDBG by $750 million in 2012 and $1.1 billion by 2021; the Senate has yet to introduce its budget proposal.

The 2012 budget passed by the House of Representatives also takes on Medicaid, the government healthcare program for people who are poor and otherwise uninsured. Medicaid pays the bills for many of Richard Rach’s patients at Mercy Behavioral Health in Pittsburgh.

“If people lose primary health care coverage, it may result in fewer people seeking help or receiving referrals for mental health services,” says Rach, who is executive director of the nonprofit organization, which provides recovery-oriented and community-based mental health resources, drug treatment and prevention services as well as programs for people with intellectual disabilities. “There are no state hospitals to provide services or long-term mental health care. Without the services we provide, many people will have nowhere to turn.”

Under the House-passed plan, Medicaid would switch from being an entitlement program, meaning that it now covers everyone who is eligible, to a block-grant system in which the federal government would allocate a set amount of money to each state. The funding formula would be tied to general inflation, not to healthcare inflation, which is usually much higher. States would either make up the cost difference themselves or, more likely, limit the number of participants and reduce benefits.

For brief snapshots of what these kinds of cuts mean to real people, take a look at the dozens of examples collected by Half in Ten, a campaign to cut poverty in half in 10 years.

Among the stories are:

• Sister Marilyn explaining how CDBG funding helps Holy Name Housing Corporation revitalize North Omaha’s low-income neighborhoods by renovating and constructing affordable houses. The city is predicting a 25-percent drop in 2011 CDBG funding.

• Sister Maureen Mulcrone, development and marketing director at Mercy Education Project , relating how MEP provides after-school tutoring, summer enrichment, GED preparation and life skills support for girls and women in a neighborhood of Detroit where 24 percent of adults haven’t completed ninth grade. CDBG funds both one-to-one, curriculum-based tutoring program for low-income girls in grades 1 through 8 and women’s literacy, adult basic education, GED preparation, and career and workforce development.

• Jane Miller, director of Government and Community Relations at Mercy Behavioral Health, describing the ripple effect of budget cuts in federal housing programs and in transportation services for seniors and persons receiving public assistance. “Housing will be more difficult to find and subsidized vouchers will be more difficult to obtain,” she says. “This will lead to more homelessness, hunger and, potentially, depression. More people will seek our support and we will have fewer resources to help.”

When I hear these stories I have to wonder who lawmakers are listening to as they propose deep spending cuts in such programs while at the same time promoting extension of tax cuts for wealthy households and reducing tax rates for corporations.

To learn more about the Sisters of Mercy’s advocacy around the federal budget,click here. You’ll find a description of the budget process as well as a look at military spending and the tax system through the eyes of the Sisters of Mercy’s commitment to nonviolence and to people who are poor.

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