Put social service spending at top of election agenda
There is a growing understanding in our society of the benefits of early intervention in the area of health care. The evidence shows we can make a difference in the quality of life for many children and families if we find ways to provide support to them during life periods of physical, emotional, or mental health challenges.
In the case of school-aged children, we know we can improve their chance for success if we find ways to support them both in the classroom and at home. If a family is facing crisis, ignoring the pressures put on children at home means we are not doing all we can to help. A child who is performing poorly in school is often a child facing undue hardship outside of school.
This is why it was gratifying that the state legislature has − at least for now − reduced previously proposed reductions to School Based Health Centers (SBHC). Connecticut’s system of SBHCs have been consistently cited as critical to the physical and mental health of children and teens. Any state budget cuts that translate to reduced services do real harm to children and families who normally access those services. The Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut operates 13 SBHCs in New London County, down from a high of 18 three years ago.
Funding for social service programs, like school-based health centers, is always an issue. On the one hand, they are a core function of government, because they provide a helping hand to those who face various life challenges. On the other hand, they are often a target for spending cuts, because for a number of reasons there is little political risk to reducing spending in this area.
However, the greater risk to our state as a whole is the underfunding of these programs, because if administered properly, they are preventative in nature and help us avoid higher cost forms of treatment down the road. Over the summer and fall, candidates for office in Connecticut will be campaigning for governor and the state legislature. The issue of social service spending should be at the top of the agenda. It is an issue that is tied directly to the economic health of the state and the stability of the state’s budgeting process. It is a matter of setting priorities.
Most citizens of Connecticut and most candidates for office can probably agree that one of the most basic functions of government is to assist those who need help meeting the challenges of life. That being the case, when building a state budget we should not be asking how deeply we can reduce social spending. Instead, we should be starting with the question: How much do we need to spend to provide proper support to children and families who can benefit from social services? The follow up question is: How do we make sure we have enough money in the overall budget to deliver those services while ensuring the overall fiscal health of our state?
Proper investment in social supports can ensure better outcomes for students in our public schools, greater opportunity for families, better job opportunities and lower health care costs for state taxpayers.
The Connecticut legislature chose in this year’s legislative session to at least slow the annual spending cuts that have been making it harder for social service agencies to do their work and deliver services on behalf of Connecticut children and families. In this election year, the big question is: Will our state make a committed, sustained public policy decision to invest in these programs, for the long-term, in a way that improves the quality of life for everyone who lives here? The answer that is in the best interest of all Connecticut residents should be “yes.”
Rick Calvert is CEO of the Child and Family Agency of Southeastern Connecticut.