Philanthropy’s Response to the Government Shutdown

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Over the last eight days, CCP members have been urging the us to take a position on the effects of the government shutdown. I have no words of wisdom or direction for the immediate crisis and, even more frustrating, there is in truth very little philanthropy or individuals can do to rectify this situation.

Instead, I am sharing with you some thoughts from Maya Rhodan, TIME contributor and journalist, as a way to highlight the reality of the government shutdown and its impact on communities and people. -- Maggie Gunther Osborn

Poor Families Taking a Hit from Government Shutdown
October 4, 2013, TIME
Maya Rhodan

A certain shutdown narrative has become all-too-familiar: It is holding us back from gazing at the National Zoo’s pandas throughout the day and perusing the halls and walkways of our national museums and parks.
But for millions of the nation’s poor, the situation could soon be far more serious, and simply moving a gate or clicking on a link to another video won’t solve their problems.

Though many of the programs that provide assistance to needy families and individuals like food stamps, Medicaid, and Medicare will continue running during the shutdown, the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) is barely holding on.

The nearly $7 billion dollar program that provides access to food, formula, nutritional education, breast-feeding support, and health-care referrals to 9 million poor mothers, babies, and children is having to rely on $125 million in contingency funds from the USDA to continue operating throughout the month.

Douglas Greenaway, the president of the National WIC Association, a D.C. based nonprofit, calls the money a “sneeze” and warns that clinics will be forced to close their doors and end benefits if normal funding doesn’t resume by the end of the month.

“This [shutdown] has created a level of uncertainty in the lives of already vulnerable families,” Greenaway told TIME. “We’re doing everything on a temporary basis. This is not the way to efficiently run a program like WIC.”

Tiffanie Peters, a participant in the WIC program in Ohio and a mother of four, told TIME she rushed out to gather produce and baby food for her 6-month-old on Thursday because she doesn’t know when the vouchers she received for the month will no longer be accepted.

“I’m worried,” said Peters, who gets about $75 a month to buy the right foods she needs to provide healthy breast milk to her baby. “[WIC] keeps our cycle of life continuing.”

Fifty-three percent of all infants born in the U.S. rely on WIC, according to the National WIC Association and participants in some states have already faced the reality of going without the services.

Another program that’s beneficial to low income families is Head Start, which already suffered a 5% cut in funding because of the sequester. Twenty-three Head Start programs in 11 states have grant cycles that began on Oct. 1, leaving 19,000 kids at risk of losing Head Start services due to the shutdown. About 5,354 children are already out of school because five programs have already closed their doors due to a lack of funding, according to the National Head Start Association.

Jonathan Bines, the Head Start director of the Five County Child Corporation, which services 900 kids in Mississippi, was one of the many directors of Head Start programs who had to halt educational services to low-income kids at the beginning of the week.

“We’re backed against a wall. We don’t have any funding to provide support,” Bines told TIME. “A lot of parents are frustrated because some of them are saying the option to provide day care [is] pretty much impossible. Others said they just started a job and don’t have anyone to depend on to help.”

Families whose household income is at or below 100% of the federal poverty line are eligible for Head Start services, which provide educational and nutritional support to kids ages 3 to 5. For a family of four, that’s an annual income of about $23,500.

Hannah Matthews, the director of Child Care and Early Education for CLASP, a D.C. based advocacy organization, says at a time when programs are already operating at marginal levels, the shutdown could cause lasting damage.

“Right now we don’t have the means to support critical developments in quality and professional development,” Matthews said. “That could have a larger impact on how we improve early childhood care in the future.”
Matthews adds programs that serve low-income Americans continue to get hurt in budget decisions.

“Congress needs to put together a budget that invests in our future,” Matthews said. “One that makes sure low income families are not bearing the toughest burden of budget cuts.”

Bines agrees. “I’m watching the news and I see that Congress is trying to pick areas to fund back and I’m trying to figure out, what about children and families?” he said. “Seems like that’s not a top priority in terms of funding. Where do we place value in our nation? Is it children and families or is it parks?”

In Connecticut, we have seen 1200 children in Bridgeport locked out of their Head Start program. What do their working parents do now? I learned this morning that philanthropists have pledged $10,000,000 in a short term loan to get these programs going again. I honor this generosity but what does it really mean? Philanthropy cannot, and should not, fill the void left by government irresponsibility. We could exhaust all the resources held in private philanthropy and not sustain programs and the infrastructure of our communities for more than a few weeks. This is not the answer no matter how generous and well intentioned the act.

So what is the answer? In the short term, I do not know, other than the need for continued public outcry forcing “our” representatives in Washington to come together in service to their country and not in continued service to special and personal interests. Long term, this is an important lesson for all Americans regarding the health and well-being of their democracy which must be grounded in the broadest possible representation of our citizenry and committed to civic engagement at the community and national levels. We have forgotten that it is not enough to say we are a democracy; we must actively participate in the health, breadth and well-being of our democracy daily in our communities, cities states and nation. We must not cede total authority to representatives once elected.

Philanthropy’s role may be to plant new seeds of engagement throughout America utilizing our resources and access to re-energize a democracy of the people, by the people and for the people where we are fully accountable to one another and to the common good.