More Need, Less Help
Thursday, March 12, 2009
The scenes here are now familiar in places deeply bruised by the recession: The Salvation Army gets so many calls from people desperate for help with overdue utility bills that, one morning, its phone system crashed. The Family Service Center of South Carolina is deluged with clients seeking free counseling for delinquent mortgages. And the shelves at the Life Force food pantry run out of rice, canned stew meat and black-eyed peas in less than an hour.
Yet in few places is the nonprofit sphere being tested as profoundly as in this Southern city -- the capital of a state where, figures released yesterday show, the unemployment rate is now the second worst in the nation and conservative political leaders believe that charities, and not the government, should bear primary responsibility for people in need.
Gov. Mark Sanford (R) eschews the prevailing view in Washington that government money should be used as a salve to the economy and to people who have lost jobs. "At some level, government steps in to fill the void," Sanford said in an interview, "but we ought to be the lender of last resort, not the first."
Sanford and the Republican-led General Assembly have cut the state's budget three times since last summer by a total of $871 million, or 13 percent -- among the deepest reductions in the nation.
The cuts have limited state agencies' ability to help the growing numbers of people in need. The state's Medicaid program, for instance, is reducing mental health counseling, cancer screening and dental coverage.
The reductions are constricting the private sector's capacity, too. The Department of Social Services has pared its contracts to nonprofit groups by an average of 10 percent, reducing funding for emergency shelters and employment training programs.
While other states have looked to Washington for assistance, Sanford has been a foremost critic of the federal economic stimulus package. Yesterday, he challenged the law's intent, announcing that he will ask the White House for a waiver to use $700 million -- the part of South Carolina's share of the money over which he has direct control -- to lower the state's debt, instead of putting it toward new spending.
Asked whose mission it is to help the widening pool of people in financial pain, the governor said that such aid "has to be leveraged through church, civic and private hands. . . . If you take care of the need in government circles, you dissipate the ability of civil society to take care of that need."
Timothy Ervolina, president of the United Way Association of South Carolina, worries that the web of philanthropic and nonprofit groups may not be able to fulfill the governor's expectations. Ervolina has watched fundraising fade at United Ways across the state, even as calls pour in to their crisis hotlines.
"Policymakers have said, 'You guys are just going to have to step up to the plate.' I hear that," he said. "But when I step up to the plate and no ball even is coming at you, it's pretty hard to make a hit."
He added: "We are increasingly taking on the role of a community grief counselor. Something has got to give, and that something is going to be people's lives."