The line grows longer at the ‘Pa­rade of Hu­man Ser­vices’

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - Nancy Mercer is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Arc of North­ern Vir­ginia. Kathy May is an Arc mem­ber.

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 ofHu­man 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,

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.

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.

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