At his inauguration last January D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams vowed to act quickly to improve the lives of all District residents. Soon after that, officials announced a record budget surplus of $445 million. But that financial recovery has not trickled down to the poor and vulnerable residents of the city.
Between 1992 and 1997, human services programs in the District were cut by $150 million, which represented nearly two-thirds of all budget cuts. The mayor recognized the devastation these cuts caused and last February said he hoped to rebuild the social services network.
Yet nearly a year later, D.C. residents who become disabled and are unable to work still can't find help to see them through their crises. Many people don't have the savings to survive the months or years that Social Security can take to process disability claims and turn reluctantly to the charity of family and friends. But too many don't have even that option and find themselves homeless.
Until 1997, the District had the General Public Assistance (GPA) program to give people waiting for disability benefits temporary financial assistance. It wasn't a lot of money -- only $239 per month -- but it helped pay the rent.
When GPA was eliminated, it was serving more than 1,600 disabled residents with an annual budget of only $2.6 million. This comparatively inexpensive program played a critical role in helping people stay housed and healthy. It cost $9 per person per day, much less than the average cost of $16 per day for a bed in an emergency shelter. Savings from the prevention of emergency room visits and hospitalization, which can run hundreds or thousands of dollars daily, were even higher.
Most states, including Virginia and Maryland, have programs such as the GPA to help residents until Social Security determines their disability claims. The federal government encourages jurisdictions to run temporary assistance programs by letting them access federal dollars to cover some of the costs of their efforts. The District also received federal money to help run its GPA program.
Now that the District's fiscal crisis is over, we have the responsibility to create a new interim disability-assistance program. More than 50 faith-based, consumer, social service, labor and legal groups have endorsed legislation that was introduced Jan. 4 to the D.C. Council by member Sandy Allen.
The D.C. Council and Mayor Williams need to take swift and decisive action in support of this legislation. Without it, too many newly disabled District residents will continue to wait for months for their federal benefits, without any support to see them through.
-- T. J. Sutcliffe
-- R. Scott McNeilly
are, respectively, advocacy coordinator for So Others Might Eat and staff attorney for the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless.