While Harrisburg dithers, people suffer

Pennsylvania Capitol Building
The Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg.

A big part of our work at the Coalition Against Hunger is connecting those who face hunger to the food they need.

We have a hunger hotline and receive calls every day from seniors, those who are disabled, parents trying to feed their children, low-wage workers who are having a difficult time making ends meet.

Make no mistake, they — and the agencies that help them — are the ones who will feel the brunt of the state budget impasse. Some are already feeling the strain, and as this months-long stalemate in Harrisburg continues, many more will.

We’ve seen it before with previous budget delays. Those who are most vulnerable — as well as the service providers on the front lines of providing support to those in need — are at the mercy of our elected officials, who cannot seem to compromise. But whether or not the funding from Harrisburg arrives, service providers will continue to have individuals and families seeking assistance at their doorstep every day.

After years of flat funding, many of these agencies are already stretched thin. They continue to be expected to do more with less. But these agencies can only stretch so far:

  • Hundreds of food cupboards and pantries throughout the state that receive funding from the state food purchase program will be able to buy less food. More people will go hungry.
  • Child-care centers, many that provide nutritious meals to low-income children in their care, will scramble to keep their doors open, possibly cutting staff and limiting the number of children they can care for and educate. Fewer children will be safe and school-ready.
  • Social service agencies, from mental-health providers to senior centers, domestic violence shelters to emergency housing agencies, will need to scale back services, lay off or furlough workers, and take out lines of credit to keep afloat and make payroll. Both their clients and staff will suffer.

Some agencies have wisely built small cushions because they know from experience that state funding does not always arrive on time. Others are juggling as best they can.

One large emergency food provider I spoke with yesterday said the only reason they have been able to continue their work is that its vendors “are amazing and wonderful and will send us food knowing they will get paid as soon as we get paid.” Luckily, some private vendors understand when agencies are the victims of political gridlock.

But vendors, providers, and those in need shouldn’t have to wait for lawmakers to do their jobs. Legislators need to stop wasting time on political theater that attempts to paint a picture of heroes and villains, as if some officials want to aid families in need and pay social-service providers in this time of crisis and some don’t. The fact is our legislature — both sides of the aisle — created this crisis.

And be clear, we don’t want a partial budget either. That would merely be a Band-Aid. We want our elected officials to get down to serious work. Provide a fiscally sound budget that restores funding to human services with stable recurring revenue so we don’t face budget crisis deja vu each year as June 30 comes and goes.

The state budget is far more than a long set of dollar figures on a piece of paper. It’s about providing — and raising — adequate revenue for priorities and making wise investments that will serve us all in the future. Right now, our legislators are failing us on all counts. The longer they let this go on, the more Pennsylvania will fall behind.

Service providers are doing their work each day. Children are going back to school to do their work each day. Millions of taxpayers across the commonwealth do their jobs and contribute to the state’s economy each day. Now it’s legislators’ turn. They need to end the nonsense, do their jobs, and pass a state budget that puts us on a path to a brighter future.

Kathy Fisher is policy manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger (www.hungercoalition.org).  kfisher@hungercoalition.org