When I tell people that I’m at the Legislature every day as a volunteer citizen advocate, after over 25 years of being around the Capitol in various roles, they tend to assume that I know a lot about what’s going on.
The truth is that I know less every day, even about things I am trying to follow as closely as I can.
For example, last January, I wrote an op-ed about unanswered questions related to food stamp (SNAP) recipients, whose benefits were being cut due to the imposition of requirements for work and training that many would not be able to meet.
Since then, over 5,000 very low-income people who are in need of one of life’s necessities have lost this critical source of food support in nine pilot counties. To date, no one has been able to explain what has happened to these former recipients and how they are getting food to survive.
Only a tiny fraction of all food stamp recipients who did not already have low-wage jobs have been reported to find work after being referred for help. The Department of Health and Human Resources, as I understand it, has basically said that the new requirements haven’t made a difference in getting work, although surely the lives of those who were cut off from food benefits were drastically affected.
Yet, key legislators now want to take these requirements statewide, plus forbid all recipients from accumulating more than a low level of assets, so that they have little or nothing to help tide them over when they can’t find a job. Bill sponsors want to spend over $2 million dollars on programs that they know don’t work, and risk losing over $17 million in federal dollars that pay for the food that people must have.
Instead, we need to target our resources — and add new resources, as needed — to create, build on and coordinate effective evidence-based programs that provide pathways to work and community service. We know, through experience, that intensive support can help individuals and families make significant improvements in their lives and give their children a better foundation for success.
On the environmental front, methods related to the regulation of toxins in rivers and streams that have worked for 40 years are now under assault. The industries that think weakening our protections is essential cannot attest to the promise of even one job, or to having lost any jobs due to the current methods. Yet, the state wants tourists and entrepreneurs to invest in our beauty and culture while risking their health by exposure to additional toxins.
Another move is to exempt tanks of brine, chemicals and possibly radioactive matter from public tracking, unless they are near public water intakes. Yet, there is no concern for the thousands of homesteads that are dependent on well water throughout the same countryside where these tanks are located.
Finally, I wrote recently about being asked to pay substantially more in taxes so that the richest people in the state can get a large tax break. I said I am willing to pay my fair share, but not to give up $1,000 per year so that a person with three-quarters-of-a-million dollars can gain an extra $27,000.
At the same time, I keep discovering other bills that have been introduced by some of the same sponsors. One of them puts an amendment to the state Constitution on the ballot for the purpose of eliminating the property taxes that support our schools and essential local services.
Another one eliminates the state civil service and makes all state employees serve only at the will and pleasure of their employer. What kind of stability does that provide for professionals at all levels who invest their lives in providing services to our citizens? Or, as someone asked me, how would this change the impact of inspectors who have the hard job of protecting us from dangers to our health and safety?
The hardest thing for me to understand, which I have addressed before and still can’t come to terms with, is how we are starving the same services — public education, higher education, roads, a safety net and health care — that we are dependent on to have strong families and communities, a healthy and stable workforce and a growing economy.
I know I am not the only one asking these kinds of questions. I implore our leadership in all three branches of government and both political parties to come together — and involve the private sector and ordinary citizens — to figure out the best course for our great state to thrive.
We are a small state of very smart and dedicated people. I know we can find common ground and reach for the stars.
Betty Rivard, of Charleston, is an MSW emeritus, a DHHR retiree and a photographer.