Disability Community Looks to Commonwealth Leaders for Hope and Help
With a re-elected governor sworn back in for his second term, a new lieutenant governor snug in his new office and a gaggle of new legislators joining lawmaking hands with their seasoned colleagues, it’s time for Harrisburg to settle in and begin work one of its most vexing tasks: enacting a fair, adequate and balanced budget for the commonwealth.
For people with disabilities, their families and the people who work to support community-based human services, state budget time is unnerving. Providers like InVision Human Services, supporting people with autism and intellectual disability, thrive or struggle by the decisions made by state budget appropriators. In preparing the Pennsylvania FY 2019-2020 budget, the governor and General Assembly will have an opportunity to confront huge systemic issues that have been causing Pennsylvania families years of anxiety and uncertainty.
Difficult issues include the state’s seemingly outsized waiting list for people with intellectual disabilities. Current data provided by the PA Waiting List Campaign reports that more than 13,000 people are on a waiting list for services, with an excess of 5,200 individuals in an emergency needs category. In the last two budget cycles the commonwealth has made some critical progress in serving additional individuals. Yet a recently released national report clarifies that nearly 10,000 commonwealth citizens are seeking home and community based services, including 7,800 who need residential supports. For people with disabilities and their family members, these numbers are terrifying as federal and state officials weigh human service needs against other worthy funding requests sent to lawmakers.
However, if the commonwealth were to make a significant increase rescuing people and families in crisis, there will almost undoubtedly be a struggle to hire sufficient workforce members to support more people receiving services and supports. This is particularly frustrating as people with disabilities yearn to work and become taxpayers but find doors closed for a myriad of reasons, including inadequate state support despite having strong community support for funding such programs.
Human services providers face their own crisis in being able to keep their doors open and fully staffed. People are quick to salute the human service workforce that helps people with disabilities live and work in the community, but behind these terrific workers is a frightening reality. Direct support professionals who staff residential and employment programs are themselves living on the edge of poverty, due to inadequate wages funded by state and federal government programs that pay these workers at such low levels that many are forced to work second jobs and or apply for welfare benefits like Section 8 housing supports, food stamps or child care subsidies for the poor.
These community workers find themselves unable to stay in the caring profession due to these low wages, and as a result, human service programs across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the nation are experiencing an increasing and alarming staffing and retention crisis. The state’s funding formula provides little room for salary increases. These workers, according to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, on the average earn 40 percent below what is needed to support a one-parent family with one or more children.
Harrisburg leaders, including the governor and the General Assembly, have a chance each year to improve these conditions, but sadly the human service field often only gets significant attention when state leaders takes special note or when tragedies occur or when years go by and the pain felt by people with disabilities, their families or providers becomes just impossible to neglect.
Two years ago, Governor Tom Wolf, his Democrat allies and the Republican controlled legislature joined forces and enacted the first rate increase for intellectual disability and autism programs in more than a decade and made affirmative movement on waiting list reductions. These were historic improvements but not enough to close a wide gap that had been allowed to suffer over a 10-year period.
On February 5, 2019, Governor Wolf will present his 2019-2020 budget recommendations. I and other human service advocates have been appealing to the governor and the General Assembly to remember the cause of people with disabilities, the workforce that supports them and the families who love them. I trust our elected officials to make their best decisions based upon the facts. I hope many will join me and others in letting the governor and General Assembly know that the citizens of Pennsylvania believe in fairness, justice and equality for all its citizens, including people with disabilities and the people who support them.