Poverty is not a choice. Do you think anyone woke up this morning and decided today's a good day to be poor? And yet, every day, poverty becomes reality for far too many American families through no fault of their own. Why?
Maybe "how?" is a better question. Jobs go away. Foreclosures. Devastating health issues lead to equally devastating economic tragedies. Mothers working two jobs to try to feed their kids don't have enough money to pay utility bills or rent, and are forced onto the streets. A spouse of 30 years suddenly dies leaving the survivor with no income and little hope.
The reasons are as diverse as the faces of the 46.2 million Americans - and one-fifth of Arizona's population - living in poverty, numbers that are at the highest level since 1993.
Looking ahead, the big question now is how the 2012 federal budget will look - and how low-income families will fare - when votes are cast in Congress, particularly with the proposed slash to funding for Community Service Block Grants (CSBG). Right now, the proposal is to cut the current budget by 50 percent to $350 million for the entire year.
CSBG dollars pay for Community Action Programs, the only federal programs focused on comprehensive services to people in need in 90 percent of American counties through a network of more than 1,100 agencies. These programs, designed and implemented based on research-backed needs assessments, are driven by the idea that we can end poverty with solid, strategic and effective community-based solutions.
The proposal to cut CSBG funding makes little sense on so many levels including the fact that, unlike other block grants, CSBG-funded Community Action Programs operate under a highly structured management and accountability system that mandates outcome measurement through a standardized reporting system.
The system also is a framework for assessment, planning and analyzing data that helps local agencies manage and continually improve performance and outcomes.
At the same time, CSBG funding generates revenue. Let me say that again: CSBG funding creates money. Last year, Arizona received $4.8 million in CSBG funding that was leveraged into an additional $45.4 million from other non-federal sources including the private sector ($8.22 for every $1 of CSBG funding).
What do cuts mean in human terms? In Arizona, it means that more than 171,000 men, women and children - including disabled individuals, seniors and displaced workers who received help through CSBG-funded programs in fiscal year 2010 - are at greater risk. And these cuts are in addition to others that are already drastically reducing housing and homelessness services and childcare access, among others.
Those are real numbers representing real challenges by real people.
Today, one in every three Arizonans is considered working poor. One in six is "food insecure," meaning they don't know if they can provide enough food for everyone in their home.
At this writing, Arizona is scheduled to receive $5.7 million in CSBG funding for fiscal year 2011, putting the state near the bottom of the allocation pile. The state also is at the bottom of the funding distribution for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which also is facing cutbacks.
The proposed CSBG cuts would affect 20 million low-income people nationwide, including 5 million children, 2.3 million seniors and 1.7 million people with disabilities.
We know these are incredibly tough times for millions of Americans. We know that the deficit is a problem and decisions that result are painful.
But we have to wonder about decisions that will make life even more dire for the growing numbers of men, women and children - many who have never needed help before - who are among the most vulnerable.
When President Obama was still a senator, he said that "we can't allow this kind of suffering and hopelessness to exist in our country... We can make excuses for it or we can fight about it or we can ignore poverty altogether, but as long as it's here it will always be a betrayal of the ideals we hold as Americans. It's not who we are."
What can we do? We must remind both President Obama, members of Congress and our state legislators that making life worse for Americans already struggling is still not who we are, and continues to betray the ideals we hold as Americans.
We all deserve better.
• Cynthia Zwick is executive director of the Arizona Community Action Association. For information on how to help, visit www.azcaa.org.