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Colorado's Fraying Safety Net

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Grace Hood
Regina Gonzales works at United Way of Weld County’s 211 Call Center, a hotline that connects callers with basic needs like transportation or food.

Colorado’s Joint Budget Committee must fill an estimated $1.1 billion budget gap which will likely translate into deep cuts to many programs including safety net services for lower income individuals. Supplemental money that would continue a free breakfast program for needy kids through the end of this school year has already been targeted by the JBC amid controversy.


As part of our ongoing “Government and You” series, KUNC’s Grace Hood reports on the growing strain this trend is putting on nonprofit organizations.

The option to buy school breakfast for their kids is an increasingly popular program for parents. And for those who come from low-income homes, the Smart Start program offers a free meal. But schools like this one in Fort Collins are scrambling to find out how to provide free meals after April 1st if additional money isn't approved.

"It's hard to make ends meet to begin with and this just becomes one more obstacle," said Craig Schneider, director of child nutrition for the Poudre School District.

A coalition of faith-based groups in Colorado Springs has said it can and will step up to provide the $124,000 needed to keep the program going if the state can't. And that taps into an ever-growing reality: as the state cuts funding to safety net services like Medicaid and child welfare programs, nonprofits are having to step in to fill the void.

"This is a really fascinating trend," said Terry Scanlon, policy analyst with the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute. "We have a growing number of services in Colorado that are supported by what is known in capital parlance as gifts, grants, and donations where we depend on the private sector to fund some service or do some work on behalf of the state."

As Scanlon follows this year's budget debate at the state capitol, he says there are a few safety net services of particular concern. One is Medicaid. Scanlon says he expects to see a heated debate among lawmakers around the reduction or elimination of certain health care procedures under the program. Meantime, he says funding to subsidize childcare for low-income families could also be significantly reduced.

"Without that subsidy, it's not cost effective for those low-income families to go to those low wage jobs," he said.

A Growing Need

And for some families, there are even more basic needs that aren't being met.

At the United Way of Weld County call center, requests for help with rent payments, food and utility vouchers increased by 20 percent last year over 2009. Executive Director Jeannine Truswell says every day her operators are referring customers to state, local or nonprofit agencies to get help.

"Need is greater out there," she said. "Certainly the underemployment and the unemployment issue in our county and our region is impacting families."

A small part of United Way's budget comes from the state. The rest comes from private donations and foundation grants. Truswell says this growing demand has lead to some difficult internal conversations about how to slice the pie.

Part of United Way's mission is assistance with basic needs, but another involves prevention programs. For example, education symposiums that teach parenting skills, which are funded with private and public funds.

"If we give up on that to fund 100 percent basic needs, where will we be 5 years from now?" she asks. "So I think the difficult thing is the tug and pull because there aren't enough resources."

Initiating a Broader Conversation

This kind of work is often overlooked and it's more important than many realize. Terry Scanlon of the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute points to the declining state dollars going into things like child protective services. At the same time, the number of confirmed cases of child abuse has risen 20 percent between 2004 and 2009.

"Those numbers suggest that there is a pool of children out there who may be at risk that aren't able to get protection from the state because the state doesn't have money to hire social workers to go out and talk to families, and help families learn how to work with their children and how to protect children," said Scanlon.

Coming up with funding solutions for problems like this raises difficult questions for nonprofits and for the state. Ongoing dilemmas like this one threaten the basic fabric of the social safety net, says Scanlon.

"We're going to continue to see cuts that create significant problems for Colorado families and until we have a broader conversation about how we create a more fair revenue structure that protects our services, we'll continue to have these problems," he said.

While many lawmakers acknowledge there is an issue, many aren't ready to initiate this discussion during a year in which they must solve a $1.1 billion budget gap.


On Monday Democrats introduced a bill at the state capitol that would set aside almost $125,000 to make sure the state keeps paying for "smart start'' breakfasts.  A final decision hasn't been made on the funding. Democrats have vowed to find a way to preserve the breakfast program, which serves about 2.3 million meals a year to about 56,000 eligible children.