Our Progressive Vision: As a society we have a responsibility to assist people in our communities who are vulnerable and can’t meet their basic needs. Whether they are children, the elderly, disabled, or victims of illness, crime, natural disaster or something else, we cannot deny our fellow citizens the basic necessities of life. Three policies are crucial: (1) expand basic services to cover all the vulnerable people who need them; (2) stop the war on drug users that has cut them off from assistance; and (3) help charities that provide social services, such as food, housing, clothing, job training, and legal representation.
Serve the vulnerable
State and local governments fund and deliver many of our most important social services—feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, providing health care to the uninsured, caring for the elderly, helping the unemployed find jobs, and much more. But these services were drastically cut after the Great Recession of 2008-09 and even as the economy strengthened, the outlook for funding social services remains bleak. And yet, we as a society have an obligation to protect vulnerable people, the sick and disabled, and especially our children. It’s hackneyed but true—the children are our future. Our country will be much better off when we ensure that every child is provided such services as high-quality early childhood care, good nutrition, health insurance, recreational opportunities, afterschool and summertime programs—the basic services they need to have a fair chance to succeed in life. We also need to prepare our communities to accommodate and serve an increasingly aging population.
Stop the war on drug users
About 24 million Americans have used illegal drugs, yet only a small percentage are punished for it. Those who are prosecuted tend to be treated harshly—in fact, more harshly than makes sense from a medical or law-enforcement perspective. Because of the “War on Drugs”-era criminal penalties, some 300,000 people are currently imprisoned for drug crimes, at great expense to taxpayers. There’s also been a trend toward drug testing of those who seek social services like SNAP and TANF. And federal law assumes there should be a complete denial of social services to people who have been convicted of a drug offense. It’s time to stop the war on the victims of drug addiction and replace it with policies that are more likely to protect public health and safety.
Support nongovernmental programs
There are nearly one million charities in the U.S. and they provide a very large portion of the social services received by low-income Americans. Human services nonprofits hold about 200,000 government contracts totaling about $100 billion. Most of these charities were hit hard by the Great Recession and are still struggling. And yet, donors keep wanting nonprofits to “do more with less.” Governments need to increase the amount spent on grants and contracts, pay contracts on time, and help nonprofits navigate through administrative requirements.
Prenatal nursing care
Prenatal care has a tremendous impact on a child’s wellbeing and potential in life. Babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome or low birth weight, for example, may be permanently disadvantaged. That’s why it’s so important to provide vigorous prenatal care to women who live in poverty. Colorado’s Prenatal Plus, which is a part of the state’s Medicaid program, provides nurse-midwives to support and educate expectant mothers, case managers to provide referrals for financial help, parenting classes, medical benefits and housing information, and dieticians to help with weight gain goals and nutrition during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Studies show that Prenatal Plus makes a substantial difference.
Serve ex-drug offenders
The Welfare Reform Act in 1996 included a little-noticed but devastating provision: as part of the political drumbeat about a “War on Drugs,” the Act imposed a lifetime denial of federal TANF and SNAP benefits for people convicted of felony drug offenses. No other felony is penalized this way; bank robbers receive benefits, marijuana possessors don’t. States are allowed to reject this policy but only a handful of states have entirely opted out of the federal ban on TANF and SNAP services. About half the states have partially opted out and the rest retain the full ban on drug offenders. Outside of the “War on Drugs” hysteria, these bans on services make no sense. There is no evidence that they act as a deterrent to drug involvement and benefits denials actually tend to make it more likely that ex-offenders will have to commit further crimes just to survive. States should opt out of these denials of fundamental services.
Agency to support nonprofits
Governments now rely on nonprofit organizations to provide a great deal of social services, from food, health care and housing to criminal justice supports, consumer advocacy, and assistance in public education. State and local governments need to increase funding to nonprofits that have a record of success. But in addition to that, because charities want to focus on serving those in need rather than on paperwork, governments should create agencies or ombudsmen that focus on making nonprofits’ interactions with government easier, e.g., simpler RFPs, easier reporting, and streamlined licensing systems. They should also find other ways to assist charities, such as allowing them to use government purchasing procedures to get discounts, making empty government office space available for little or no cost, and other in-kind contributions that would only marginally burden government agencies.