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'Give me your tired, your poor ...'

By KATHLEEN STAUFFER and SHEILA AMDUR

Publication: The Day

Published December 02. 2012 4:00AM

'Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

America has a history of embracing its disenfranchised. Emma Lazarus, the American poet who wrote those words found on the Statue of Liberty, herself enjoyed an affluent childhood made possible by hard-scrabbling immigrant forebears. We fight dictators around the world so others might likewise breathe free. Despite the divisive messaging of the last election, most people - be they Democrat or Republican or Independent - are truly generous and quick to write a check or lend a hand to somebody in need.

It's tempting, all the same, to wonder why government can't be run more like a business. Government and business, though, by necessity operate on different principles.

Business divides goods and services into units and delivers product for what the market will bear.

Government services are not so readily divided nor so easily "sold." If taxpayers were assessed a "police tax" so each might pay according to his or her want for the service, those citizens most in need of protection would likely be least able to pay thus putting the rest of us at risk. A 2011 Connecticut Business and Industry Association survey of Fairfield County business owners revealed they believe a lack of transportation infrastructure is the single greatest threat to their success in the next five years. Should the state's wealthiest entrepreneurs foot the bill for rehabilitating our woefully inadequate transportation system? Of course not.

Like many social service agencies in Connecticut, The Arc New London County struggles daily with the increased costs of supporting the 556 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities the state contracts with us to serve. We understand our governor and legislature will be making very difficult budget decisions soon, but The Arc and providers like it throughout the state can barely cover the costs of services we provide now. So what can be done?

Connecticut affords a group home with 6 residents a budget of $270 per week for groceries and household supplies. That is $6.43 per day per resident. But for our resourcefulness, which includes a lot of coupon clipping, we couldn't make ends meet now. People with severe physical and intellectual disabilities are expected to attend day programs 90 percent of the time. If they cannot, we absorb the unfunded overhead costs. Gasoline prices increased 40 cents per gallon last year resulting in $21,000 in additional costs with no additional funding. Health care costs for small employers with modest plans have been going up 15 percent to 20 percent annually. The Arc has received no funding to cover these escalating costs.

It makes no sense to cut supports that give people a real shot at independence. The Arc New London County is fast building a track record for helping people to reduce their reliance on state and federal dollars by as much by 90 percent over three to five years. On average, the 55 adults in our employment program work 15 hours per week for $10.50 per hour. The Arc itself employs 23 people with intellectual disabilities who earn nearly $100,000 toward their own support annually. We also serve as an economic driver in the community with a payroll of $6 million annually. Thirty percent of our employees are minorities and 73 percent are women. Social service funding is truly a social justice issue.

The Arc is no different than any other agency or small business in our region, both in serving as a positive economic force and - having weathered four years of escalating costs with no corresponding increase in funding - dancing precipitously on the edge of economic disaster. Nonprofit leaders are more than willing to work in real partnership with the state to save taxpayer dollars through prudent changes. Duplicate reports and parallel monitoring processes on a daily basis eat up valuable time and resources better applied to services.

We are the safety net for the people we serve, for their families, and for the state. We cannot sustain our services or even our financial viability with any more cuts and with continuing flat funding. It's time for the state to look elsewhere and stop eroding essential and life supporting community services.

We must have the courage for real reform. Squeezing the safety net past its breaking point isn't the answer.

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