It’s always encouraging to see the Christmas spirit of giving that accompanies efforts to help the less fortunate.
But a society must also carry a structural goodness if it really wants to care about the less fortunate.
That’s why I’m disturbed to learn from Madison County’s Cindy Darden, who heads Advantage Behavioral Health Services for our 10-county area, that Advantage has been cut back from $16.8 million in state funds in 2001 to $9.7 million this year, with more cuts possible in the coming months.
Advantage serves those in Madison County and nine other Athens-area counties who suffer from developmental disabilities, mental illnesses and addictive diseases.
It’s not like we’re seeing less of these problems. No, the economic downturn has hit people hard. There are those who struggle with addictions who find themselves suddenly out of a job. A man hits the bottle or the pill. His child pays the price when he comes home in a rage. The man with schizophrenia needs to be institutionalized, but there’s not the money or the space for it. He sticks the knife in his pocket and heads out the door. The elderly couple is now physically unable to take care of their severely disabled child. They need help, but there’s a long waiting list of other families needing that help, too.
The notion of a social safety net is a political taboo for many. It implies nannyism of the worst order, a socialist state set on helping the freeloaders. Well, that’s surely a self-satisfying political cry, but there’s more complexity to this world than three-word “get-a-job” sloganeering.
There’s no denying that some people seek to mooch off the government. But that’s true at both ends of the financial spectrum. There are lazy folks who can work but don’t. There are also rich folks who work political connections for price-gouging government contracts that ensure obscene and ill-gotten profits at the expense of taxpayers.
But can we in good conscience lump the children, the elderly, the developmentally challenged, the mentally ill together under the wide umbrella of “lazy” and be done with social service issues? Can we shout “get a job” to developmentally challenged adults in real need of government assistance? Can churches and civic organizations, for all the good they do, pick up the cost and responsibility of housing the schizophrenic man, who may turn homicidal if he doesn’t get his medicine? Can we turn off resources for those with severe addictions and not expect other repercussions in our society — more thefts and violence, more strain on law enforcement services and the courts?
The funds for those served by Advantage in northeast Georgia started dwindling before the economic collapse. Early in the decade as home prices skyrocketed and tax collections shot through the roof, the money squeeze was already on Advantage and other social service programs.
The “get-a-job” mentality has pervaded our political makeup for too long when it comes to social services. It’s easy to cut funding if we can put a big umbrella of “lazy welfare recipients” on those in need, even if we knowingly lump developmentally disabled adults into the same boat as the freeloaders. So money for quality services has gradually evaporated. We end up with the nightmare scenarios, the things that make news, the 14-year-old girl dying in a mental hospital of impaction because an overworked staff failed to check on her and get her needed medical attention.
Ultimately, I believe that empathy is the thing that makes a person good inside. It is not a political slant, but one of the heart. We are born totally innocent, but without any understanding of empathy either. Such an attribute is acquired over time through observation, contemplation and a respect for life, not just your own.
We have to learn this as individuals.
We need to learn this as a society, too.
Zach Mitcham is editor of The Madison County Journal.
Great article. I used to work at ABHS where my job was trying to find the handicapped people jobs and assist them to keep their jobs. To help them to get off the government welfare. I left several years ago and it was tough back then, now I can only imagine how difficult it would be to try to find an employer to hire the handicapped. Once again, great article.