If budgets reflect our collective priorities, then this year’s impasse sends a loud and clear message that public schools and services for seniors aren’t currently at the top of that list. For hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians, from our youngest to our oldest citizens, and everyone in between, the six-month-long budget impasse has been a disaster.
School districts that rely on state funding have had to take out millions of dollars in loans just to keep the doors open. Senior centers across the state have closed, and in Philadelphia alone, no aging service provider has been paid since the summer, including those that serve the daily needs of elders, protect victims of elder abuse and violence, and prevent senior homelessness. Some school and senior services staff are being asked to work without pay to serve the most vulnerable people in our state. It is precisely these Pennsylvanians who are most affected by our lawmakers’ failure to adequately and promptly fund these necessary services.
Beyond severe cutbacks, the ongoing crisis has brought to light underlying structural problems affecting agencies and organizations that work day in and day out to support and improve the lives of our state’s most vulnerable and disenfranchised residents. Without fair, consistent, and sufficient funds, agencies simply cannot provide essential programming and services to the public which change and save lives of children, seniors, and families.
Examples of persistent funding shortfalls abound among education and senior services agencies. Special education funding has been flat-lined for five years with only a slight increase last year, even as the costs associated with serving students with special needs has increased. More than half of school districts have cut programming. And, schools in our poor urban and rural districts — the same schools that, due to generally low property values and high poverty, are most-reliant on state funds — have been struggling for years just to keep the doors open under the crushing weight of slash-and-burn state budget cuts and the lack of a fair funding system.
Despite Pennsylvania’s enormous senior population of 2.7 million, the fourth-highest percentage of seniors in the country, funding for aging services has been essentially flat over the past decade, leaving it to nonprofit organizations to find creative ways to meet the basic human needs of elders, from safe shelter and meals to transportation and access to justice. Even some of our state lottery dollars, intended to provide services to older Pennsylvanians, which enable them to remain in their own homes and age in place, have been redirected from home and community-based services to instead support Medicaid-funded nursing home and institutional care, resulting in waiting lists for essential services for elders across the commonwealth.
State government has a leading role to play in guaranteeing that all Pennsylvanians can flourish without fear that their basic, human needs will go unmet. Education, for all children, is a necessary prerequisite to lifelong success, as is enabling our elders to live safe, healthy lives of independence and dignity, free from violence, hunger, and poverty. And while not all schools and not all communities have suffered equally under the impasse — just as not all communities struggle with poverty, discrimination, and unemployment — each state leader must transcend his or her local interests and act for the good of our commonwealth. Together, we can turn the page on years of failure and guarantee that our state budget puts all Pennsylvanians, from our youngest to our oldest, first.
We ask the legislature to pass a budget that adequately funds services for our state’s most vulnerable citizens. Make this long-delayed budget worth the wait.