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Largo column: Without government help, needy may be left to suffer

I have been thinking lately about my late grandmother's stories of the lean times during and after the Great Depression. She and my grandfather were fortunate: He managed to keep his job. They had a home and a big garden and a cow for milk.

But the bottom had fallen out for so many others in America, and often those desperate people showed up at their kitchen door, asking for food or milk or some work, my grandmother said. That's the way it was done. If you needed help, you went around to the kitchen door of a home, and the people who lived there shared what they could.

I wonder if the poor and vulnerable among us today will again have to rely on kitchen door charity.

The social safety net created and maintained by the government in the years since the Great Depression is being shredded as officials cut the budgets for a vast array of social programs, motivated by both taxpayers' demands for tax relief and an economic downturn that is squeezing government revenue streams. Just in the past week or so, these headlines appeared in this newspaper: More cuts expected for child services; Health cuts may go deep; Addicts likely to lose out on help; 'Life line' in dire straits; Aid agencies facing leaner times.

Among those who would be affected by these proposed funding cuts are nursing home residents, people who have suffered catastrophic illnesses, terminally ill Medicaid patients, homeless families, low-income parents who use government-subsidized child care programs, alcohol and drug abusers in treatment programs, and foster children.

Advocates of smaller government see logic in making these kinds of cuts. They want their government to focus on public safety — police, fire, homeland security — and provide courts and prisons, water and sewer, and certain other services mandated by law. That, to them, is the proper role of government.

Yet, especially in times like these — when the economy has soured, inflation is outpacing paychecks, housing is not affordable, health insurance and medical care are too expensive for many, jobs are being outsourced to foreign countries, and food and gas prices are soaring — people who can't make it will turn to their government for help and be stunned to find it isn't there for them.

Private, nonprofit social programs also have been an integral part of America's social safety net, but they will not be able to help all those left behind if the government withdraws its assistance. Nonprofits in our area report that corporate and individual donations are down, and so are local government contributions. Yet the number of people showing up for help is growing.

Consider the crisis at just one such agency, the Willa Carson Health Resource Center, a nonprofit that has provided much-needed health care to thousands of poor people in Clearwater since 1995. Conditions there are so dire that the center is now open only three days a week and is $40,000 in the red. Last year, a $50,000 state government contribution was cut, and Pinellas County government may reduce its contribution to the health center, too. Nonprofits all over our area are hearing the same bad news from their funding sources.

"In October (the start of the next fiscal year), they are going to see a whole bunch of nonprofits close," predicted Linda Osmundson, who directs domestic abuse programs through CASA, a nonprofit in St. Petersburg.

Civilized society needs a way to give a hand to those who must have help to survive the bad times. But reconstructing America's social safety net after government programs have been eliminated and nonprofits have closed their doors will be neither quick nor easy. Meanwhile, where will people go when they are hungry or desperate for help? Our kitchen doors?

If they knocked, would we even answer?

Diane Steinle's e-mail address is dsteinle@sptimes.com.

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Largo column: Without government help, needy may be left to suffer 04/01/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 3, 2008 11:35am]

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