POSTED ON DECEMBER 9, 2009:
Connecting the Dots
Government holds the key to helping those Americans and Oklahomans from top to bottom
The statistic is mind-boggling: Nearly one in three Oklahomans received help last year from the state Department of Human Services.
From the state's welfare agency.
You're doin' fine Oklahoma?
It's hardly a shocking revelation that Oklahoma routinely ranks near the bottom of most socioeconomic indicators.
Or that the current hard times -- worst since the Great Depression -- are making matters much worse.
Or that the economic crisis is helping fuel a populist, anti-tax prairie fire known as the tea-party movement.
The question is, what are we going to do, if anything, about suffering in Oklahoma?
The government-is-always-the-problem, never-the-solution crowd that dominates Oklahoma politics is well represented by the likes of U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn. When confronted at a town hall meeting last summer by a woman whose gravely ill husband was denied insurance coverage and had been booted from a nursing home, Coburn suggested neighbors should be the ones helping her.
"The idea," he added, "that the government is a solution to our problems is an inaccurate, a very inaccurate statement."
Less well represented are the 291,022 Oklahoma children who qualified for food stamps in 2008 -- before the economic crisis really blossomed. That's enough kids to fill the University of Oklahoma's giant football coliseum three and a half times.
What does it say about us as a society that the teabaggers can attract thousands to a rally on the state Capitol steps, yet a serious state House subcommittee discussion on human suffering last week attracted only about a dozen spectators [most were state DHS officials available to answer lawmakers' questions; two were journalists, neither from the state's daily press, television or radio]?
I am convinced a huge part of the problem is that many Oklahomans -- indeed, many Americans -- don't make the connection between taxes and public services. Roads and bridges, police and fire, schools and prisons don't materialize out of thin air. They are financed through a social compact in which we collectively agree to pay taxes.
Is there anything sillier -- or more illustrative of this taxes-services disconnect -- than health care reform opponents waving placards demanding the government get its hands off their Medicare?
Of course, many in the state Legislature's Republican majority share the Coburn philosophy: The state has little or no business helping the needy. It's a problem best left up to and solved by faith-based groups, churches or other Good Samaritans.
In fact, many such groups are hard at work in Oklahoma, ensuring, for example, that children are properly clothed and equipped for school and that poor, often-immobile seniors are receiving hot meals [a casualty of the state's budget crisis].
Some of these faith-based entities even receive -- gasp! -- tax dollars to help augment their programs.
With needs so great, it's past time to reframe the debate. Let's start with this question: Is any entity better equipped than government to serve as the central, organizing point for our collective efforts to alleviate human suffering?
Further, what's wrong with the most affluent society in the world agreeing to pool its resources -- through taxes -- to give a hand-up to those in need?
State DHS Director Howard Hendrick, a staunchly conservative Republican who would never be mistaken for a tax-and-spend liberal, argues that Oklahoma lawmakers face "a very difficult moral dilemma" when considering possible cuts in an already lean DHS budget.
Appearing before the House subcommittee last week, Hendrick noted that in just seven years, the number of food stamp and Medicaid recipients is up 45 percent and 35 percent, respectively. In October, for example, 546,988 received food stamps -- up nearly 115,000 from the same month a year ago.
Yet, throughout the same seven-year period, the department's number of full-time employees has increased only 4.5 percent. Most of the DHS-related services are handled by employees working for private contractors -- day care operations, for example -- and they are "very poorly paid," Hendrick said.
"We ought to be paying them a lot more," he said. "We are not doing right by the workforce in our state."
Of course, Hendrick conceded, a poorly paid job is better than no job at all in today's uncertain times. But, if the state cuts the DHS budget further, more jobs -- albeit poorly paid jobs -- will be lost, worsening the state's economic crisis.
Rep. Ron Peters, R-Tulsa, chair of the subcommittee on human services, told Hendrick that he isn't enthralled with the idea of further cuts, but he pointed out that state revenues were down 26 percent in the first quarter of the fiscal year when compared to last year.
"We cannot print money," Peters said.
No, but legislative leaders can make the decision to think outside their partisan boxes. It was clear from questions in the subcommittee hearing that too many GOP lawmakers employ a knee-jerk worldview that government is always too big, inefficient and corrupt and that it ought not to play any role in these matters.
Even worse, there is little political incentive for legislators to care about the least among us. Think any state senator or representative expects to win re-election via hefty campaign contributions from the poor or an outsized voter turnout among the needy? Sure ... and pigs fly.
Who will give voice to the voiceless?
-- Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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