In an issue highlighting philanthropy efforts, it is important to remember the crucial role that government programs and services play in the lives of millions of Americans who depend on publicly funded services for the basic necessities of life.
The Medicaid program, for example, funds approximately 60 percent of the nursing home beds in Washington state. Medicaid also provides maternity care for more than 42 percent of the births in our state. Once a child is born in our state, there is a very good chance that he or she will obtain health care through the state’s Apple Health for Kids program, as it serves more than 742,000 kids.
In 1967, the Field Foundation sent a team of doctors and nutritionists to four areas of deep poverty in the U.S. to investigate the prevalence of hunger and malnutrition. What this team found shocked them: severe hunger and malnutrition that the team thought existed only in some areas of the Third World.
A decade later, a team went to the same four areas and found that severe hunger and malnutrition had been wiped out. The team concluded that economy was not responsible for wiping out severe hunger since economic growth had largely bypassed these four areas. Instead the team attributed these results to the enactment of federal and anti-hunger programs, notably the food stamp and child nutrition programs.
I cite these examples not to prove that government programs have solved the problems of health care and hunger. Our country still faces significant problems in both of these areas. But without programs such as Medicaid and food stamps, low-income families, children, seniors and disabled people would face health and nutritional problems faced by some of the countries in the world.
Private philanthropy plays an important role in the provision of basic necessities, such as spurring innovation, funding pilot projects and providing seed money for programs. But private philanthropy cannot pay for the ongoing costs of basic services or even make up for significant cuts in these programs. Dick Thompson, a former head of the United Way of King County, gave a dramatic example to illustrate this point. He pointed out that the annual budget of all of the United Ways in Washington state equaled about two–to-three days of spending by the state Department of Social and Health Services.
Given the crucial and irreplaceable role that government funding and services play in the lives of people in need, nonprofit social service agencies need to actively advocate for good public policy and public funding. Indeed, most social services agencies rely on government for a large part of their funding; for my agency, Solid Ground, 75 percent of our funds come from government contracts and grants. But beyond the government funds that agencies rely on, human service organizations need to advocate for a broader set of policies and services that the people we serve rely on. A mental health agency, for example, should care about funding for low-income housing and anti-hunger programs, because a person with mental health issues is much less likely to benefit from counseling if he or she is homeless and malnourished.
Providers of services are well situated to advocate on behalf of the people they serve. They know firsthand the particular needs of their clients and can suggest the best solutions and strategies to address them. Ideally, agencies should advocate alongside their clients. They should organize and train their clients to be advocates for themselves.
Asian Pacific American (APA) agencies and activists have been very involved in advocacy work, through coalitions such as the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition (APIC). Through its organizing and lobby days, APIC and its allies have worked successfully to enact and maintain services that serve our community’s refugees and immigrants, such as State Food Assistance, Naturalization, Limited English Proficient Pathway, medical interpretation and health care for immigrant children.
None of these services would exist as they are today if APIC and its allies had just concentrated on providing direct services — and had not organized thousands of APAs to talk and write to their legislators.
When the health and well-being of thousands of people are at stake, there’s really no other choice than for social services agencies to become engaged in the political and legislative process to ensure that the needs and aspirations of the people they serve are being addressed by their elected officials.