Unconventional wisdom

Political courage needed to take on critical human needs.

By Chris Fitzsimon

[05.21.04] — The debate about policy in North Carolina is trapped in conventional wisdom.

Efforts to change how we address the critical human needs facing our state run into a wall built by polls and focus groups, cautious leaders of both political parties, battalions of lobbyists and campaign contributors, and human-services advocates fearful of losing the few crumbs they sometimes get.

Worse still, the system feeds on itself, breeding resignation among the handful of folks who try in vain to change it, and cynicism and then apathy in people who watch from afar hoping change will come on its own.

Anger and outrage need to replace accommodation.

This year, thanks to a cut made last year, thousands of people leaving public assistance and entering the workforce will lose health care coverage they were told they would have under Medicaid.

Twenty-four thousand children await childcare help, yet policymakers say all they can do this year is keep the list from growing.

Homeless families live on our streets, and only one in three households that qualifies for help gets it because affordable housing is lacking and no new money will be spent this year for the Housing Trust Fund to provide it.

More than 40,000 people are on waiting lists for mental health services, 9,000 of them are children. In recent years, state lawmakers have eliminated or dramatically reduced several important child welfare programs designed to reduce child abuse.

North Carolina tied Mississippi recently as the state with the biggest increase in the percentage of people without health care, and this year’s discussions have focused only on which services to cut and on which groups, including pregnant women, poor children and diabetics, to cut from those services.

The list goes on, as does the silence from elected officials.

We have heard the excuses: It’s an election year. Conventional wisdom leaves no room for helping the poor, mentally ill and homeless. Polls don’t support change, consultants don’t recommend it, lobbyists and special interests won’t allow it. The state budget is tight.

None of that means much to a family living on the street or a child with mental illness stuck on a waiting list.

If Gov. Mike Easley and legislative leaders truly want to put human needs first, they can make the time in the just-begin short legislative session to write a new human-service plan and look at the budget in a new way, spending the money and raising the taxes they need to fix what is wrong.

A shortfall in political courage, not in the budget, is the obstacle to public policy designed to make life better for North Carolinians, particularly the most vulnerable among us who are put at greatest risk by conventional wisdom.

Chris Fitzsimon is director of NC Policy Watch, a program of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal.

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