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Arizona’s poor need more than scraps and afterthoughts

In this time of fiscal crisis, conversations about the future of the state must include the health and human services sector as well as immigration, transportation, water, economic development, tax policy and education.
Too often, state budget allocations for health and human services have been the scraps and afterthoughts rather than a serious, comprehensive process of setting an agenda of what's needed to address Arizona’s social concerns.  
In order to provoke discussion and stimulate solutions, the Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition — PAFCO – education fund recently published the Unfinished Agenda for Health and Human Services for Arizona. The publication represents a new effort by the PAFCO boards to stimulate action on Arizona’s most pressing social and health concerns.  
Much like we must plan our transportation infrastructure, we must plan solutions for our most vulnerable families. While we are planning new bridges, repairing sections of overpasses, building overpasses in a new location, creating more public transit options, or constructing lanes of highways to accommodate our growing needs, we must also plan solutions for our health and human services needs.
Our primary concern in this document are those Arizonans who are left out, left behind, or somehow left suffering through no fault of their own. Needs of vulnerable families are severe. We believe it’s our obligation as a society to protect and serve those most vulnerable among our citizens, whether they are children, adults or elderly. The measure of a humane society is how it treats its most vulnerable members.  
During these difficult economic times, the poor and vulnerable will suffer the most, yet some of the largest proposed cuts are to the very programs that help those in need. And we know from some Nobel Prize economists’ analysis, that reducing services for low-income residents is one of the worst things you can do to a state's economy.
This is not a time to balance the state budget on the backs of children and vulnerable adults. We realize the state is having very serious revenue difficulties, but what this document points out is that we must not fall back or retreat in our commitments to the most vulnerable in our society.  
Many health and human services have been neglected and under-funded for years.  Many larger social concerns have not been addressed with systematic, real and incremental solutions.
 We must not tolerate poverty, hunger, homelessness, neglect of our children or elderly, or accept family violence and neglect our direct caregiver service work force needs. Our future quality of life demands attention to the health and human services infrastructure and the needs of Arizona's citizens.
Examples of under-funded or neglected health and human services include:
• All sectors suffer from work force needs based on historically low rates and low wages for direct worker caregivers, which have not kept up with marketplace wages. Qualified, caring, staff members leave sensitive jobs due to poor pay and working conditions.
• Hundreds of thousands of children and low income working adults go without needed health-care coverage.  
• Thousands of women and children continue go without safety and shelter from domestic violence each year.  
• Childcare rates are at least six years outdated, limiting parents’ choices of quality services.  
• Funding has not addressed the need for services for people seeking recovery from serious mental illness and substance-abuse problems.
• Children’s services for the most vulnerable are constantly stretched beyond the system’s capacity to respond. We are probably as many as 200 CPS workers short of the real need.  
• Affordable housing is in short supply throughout the state.
• People with disabilities have limited opportunities while independent living services go underfunded.
We have learned the hard way that the marketplace, the faith-based communities and nonprofits cannot solve all these problems.
Poverty, hunger, homelessness, family violence persist, the health care crisis widens and deepens. People are suffering needlessly.  
Yet, solutions are possible. We must just decide to act. And if we fail, we will have learned the lesson that we must try again. The dignity and quality of life of too many people is at stake for us to not keeping trying. Our shared humanity demands we build a society where all have what they need to live in dignity and peace.
Copies of the PAFCO report are available at:    http://www.pafcoalition.org/pdf/45104_PAFC_complete.pdf
Timothy J. Schmaltz is a Phoenix resident and coordinator at Protecting Arizona's Family Coalition

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