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Posted at 12:52 AM ET, 01/16/2011

A longer line at the 'Parade of Human Services'

By Nancy Mercer and Kathy May

This month marks the beginning of a new legislative year in Virginia. Like clockwork, public hearings will be held across the commonwealth to address the governor’s proposed budget. The hearings give residents a chance to provide feedback on the budget as legislators try to balance the spending plan with the priorities of Virginians.

For any person or group lacking the money to pay for a professional lobbyist in Richmond, these hearings provide an opportunity to try to convince lawmakers that their need is urgent. Most use personal stories to make an impression on the legislators. Personal stories are powerful tools for all of the human service organizations vying for the small pot of public money available for their constituencies.

This “Parade of Human Services” is a heart-wrenching lineup of people who represent the working poor, have disabilities, face unnecessary incarceration and homelessness, are aging, serve as caregivers, or are otherwise vulnerable.

People begin to line up, often hours ahead of time, to sign up for the three-minute slots they are given to express a lifetime of angst. The presenters, harking from every group of the human services community, share their stories, one after the other, for hours. Tears, cheers, anger, fear, hope, despair, gratitude, pleas and prayers are shared as people of all ages, from all walks of life, bare their souls and share their weaknesses before the panel of legislators and the audience.

After hours of testimony, the mood in the rooms grows heavy. So do the hearts and minds of all who have made time to try to influence the government and help it set its priorities.

If you have to been one of these hearings, you have been to them all. The same stories and requests get made every year. And every year, Virginia continues to lag behind the rest of the country in caring about its most vulnerable residents in almost every human service category you can imagine. Keep in mind that Virginia ranks seventh in personal income per capita.

In recent years, the state has been ranked 46th for its fiscal effort toward community-based services for people with developmental disabilities. It has come in at 42nd in Medicaid spending for people with developmental disabilities, and 48th in overall Medicaid spending per capita. It came in last at placing foster children in permanent homes before they age out of the system. The state has improved in some areas, such as education, but it’s still not where it should be. We do worst by those on the fringes.

Ironically, despite this blind spot, Virginia also receives a top score in Pew’s “Grading the States” review, which measures states’ performance in managing money, people and infrastructure. Again, it matters where you place your priorities.

In difficult times like these, taking part in the parade demands more time. The line is growing longer, the needs of the public are increasing. But maybe this year, the lawmakers will act on what they hear.

It is time for Virginia to set an example for the rest of the country and finally treat human services like the core responsibility that it is, rather than as something it only has to do if the dollars are available.

Nancy Mercer is executive director of the Arc of Northern Virginia. Kathy May is an Arc member.

By Nancy Mercer and Kathy May  | January 16, 2011; 12:52 AM ET
Categories:  Virginia, health care  
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nice article but with a re-thuglican at the helm of Virginia, who thinks he has national aspirations, the trials and tribulations of the downtrodden and poor mean nothing. the re-thuglicans climb over the poor to make there way to the selfish top. they couldn't care less about the plight of the poor.

Posted by: submarinerssn774 | January 16, 2011 5:12 PM | Report abuse

The 'human services parade' grows even longer if the General Assembly passes an ABC privatization scheme to triple the number of liquor retail outlets to include minimarts, grocery stores, etc. -- increasing consumption and, likewise, alcohol misuse/abuse and its damaging fallout, both personal and secondhand.

Those who care about community health and safety: the time is now to contact your state legislators. Google "Drawbacks Exist to Privatizing Alcohol Sales," Roanoke Times, May 30 2010. The author (a former ABC commissioner) says, if Va. liquor consumption rises to the U.S. average, the cost to Virginians is an estimated $1 billion+ yearly. Also, it is important to understand that ABC revenue presently funds social services like mental health and substance abuse and this funding is in jeopardy since privatizing liquor sales is proposed to be used as a way to fund transportation.

Posted by: anonymousid | January 16, 2011 11:20 PM | Report abuse

Lump in throat :( thank you Nancy ...

Posted by: sgoewey | January 17, 2011 2:46 PM | Report abuse

It's pretty awful that these are really the only opportunities for public input into the budget process. Virginia's budget process continues to happen in private conversations and back-room deals at the General Assembly.

The needs are so immense in the community. Even though I've attended these hearings for years, I'm still amazed about how degrading it is for people to wait in line for hours to have three minutes to tell their very personal stories and need for supports. In some regions the legislators are barely paying attention and only in their seats about half the time.

Posted by: anon67 | January 17, 2011 8:56 PM | Report abuse

Virginia's public policy toward its vulnerable citizens needs to change from its decades long "charity model". Virginia's treatment of vulnerable citizens is shameful. It demonstrates disregard for the welfare of people with disabilities and their families. Virginia should be embarrassed that it requires its vulnerable citizens and their families to line up to "beseech" lawmakers and the effort produces little substantive intervention for the 6,400 needing assistance. Such callus behavior sends a message that those who are vulnerable are relegated to second class citizenship where their citizenship role in democracy's common good is one of beseeching not acceptance or equality.

Posted by: Sandy27 | January 18, 2011 1:01 PM | Report abuse

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