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Good afternoon on this lovely Saturday in January! I’m Jessica, Voices’ new communications manager. I just wanted to introduce myself and share a childhood memory that complements Polly’s latest post. From time to time, the Voices staff and our supporters will share memories and lessons from childhood on the Voices Today blog. These posts may stir up childhood memories of your own (please share!) and give us all the opportunity to reflect on how these experiences have influenced our lives.

Whenever I eat fresh parsley I’m immediately transported back in time to my nanny and grandpa’s mint green kitchen. They were old-fashioned folks who grew much of their own produce in their suburban backyard. They spent hours in the garden and hours in the kitchen. They rarely cooked anything from a box.

I remember picking parsley with my grandpa and can still taste the delicious cauliflower cakes, cucumber salad and lima beans my grandma served on their formica table. Because of these positive food experiences, I have an appreciation for fresh food. I also recognize the challenge of eating healthy in our modern society. If I wrestle with purchasing a three-dollar red pepper, it’s completely understandable why someone at or below the poverty level would pass.

With 57 percent of Georgia’s children eligible for free and reduced school lunches, it’s important that we advocate for fresh foods in schools that will help them develop positive food habits to reflect on and carry into adulthood. To some children, the school cafeteria is their grandparents’ garden…

Today I heard that more than 57% of Georgia’s kids are eligible for free and reduced lunches in public schools. According to statistics on the StateMaster website, Georgia places fifth in the nation in number of eligible kids. While there has been a decrease in students lined up for the reduced lunch (137,133 last year to 111,793 this year), the number of kids eligible for free lunch has soared, increasing by more than 52,000 kids in just one year (up to 850,248 from 797,772). Of those eligible, about 76% enroll.

Think about the need here, and then extrapolate the need for some of those same kids on evenings and weekends, not to mention over the summer, where there may be few food programs to help them and their families. Think about how hard it is to concentrate on school work when your stomach is growling, or think about how much of the fresher, healthier food tends to be more expensive. Also think about how important it is to advocate on behalf of healthy school lunches for all kids, and especially for those for whom it may be their only meal.

(Note: Most of the free and reduced lunch funding comes from the federal level, with the rest made up by state and local dollars.  To qualify for reduced-price lunches, a family of four must make no more than $40,793. For free lunches, the income threshold is $28,665.)

The Department of Community Health’s program, Children 1st, screens all newborns and children up to age 5 to identify those who are at risk for poor health and developmental outcomes. The program then links families to appropriate services. The Governor’s budget, which seems to propose cutting Children 1st funds to the tune of $2.9 million means that it would be harder for the State to identify at-risk children early, significantly lessening the chance that those kids will grow up healthy and ready for school. The loss of these dollars could also increase the demand and cost of special services by delaying treatment from a time when it would be most effective.

Now, technically, we are not sure that the funding is to be officially axed, but the fact that the Governor’s budget did not allocate a specific program line to Children 1st seems to indicate that those funds for the program are on the chopping block. We hope this is not the case, because such a cut to infant and young child health screenings would most definitely lower school readiness and healthy outcomes for kids, as well as raise assessment and treatment costs.

As advocates for children and families in Georgia, we are concerned about recent attempts within states to scale back vital health care programs for our most vulnerable citizens. The move began with Arizona Governor Brewer’s request to the federal government for a waiver from a regulation that prevents states from cutting some income groups from the Medicaid program. In response, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal’s spokesperson was quoted by Bloomberg news organization earlier today that while the Governor has not offered specific cuts he “would happily work on such a proposal.”

I am certain our governor is aware that Medicaid helps children ages 0-5 whose families are at or below 133% of the federal poverty level (FPL), (for instance, a family of four which earns a little over $29,000/year). It helps children 6-19 whose family earns at or below 100% of the FPL. I find it hard to believe that in these times of high unemployment, lower wages, and increased family stress, that our leadership would embrace restricting medical coverage for what is a growing percentage of our state’s citizenry. Losing a job equates to a loss of employer-sponsored coverage not just for the adult involved, but for the children of the family as well.

In addition, cutting health care coverage would make it harder for kids to access primary care and manage chronic conditions, which in turn would result in poorer health outcomes and greater costs down the line. I would ask the governor’s staff to consider these impacts before making such a seemingly glib remark.

Why did three Georgia companies merit placement on Fortune magazine’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For?  Because they support child care for their employees, including summer camps in some cases.  AFLAC, Alston & Bird, and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta joined number one ranked SAS, Inc. in North Carolina in offering on-site or accessible quality child care as part of the employment package.  Other child and family-friendly benefits were also detailed in the article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on Jan. 21.

If Georgia wants to be seen as a great place to work, ensuring access to quality childcare for families in our workforce is a good place to start.  During the hard economic times of the last two years, Georgia had the benefit of $47 million in federal stimulus funds to eliminate the waiting list for child care subsidies and to help 600 child care centers improve the quality of their programs.  With the loss of those stimulus funds, 10,000 families will be without access to quality care for their kids. 

What will happen?  to the children? to the employees? to employers?  We are likely to see more latchkey kids, more employee absenteeism and lower productivity.  Solutions?  Public/private partnerships, tax credits for employers, child care tax credits for families, and expanding Georgia PreK .

Maybe we can’t do everything at once but let’s start planning for the future.  The greatest innovations and the most effective solutions are born out of hard times.  Let’s seize the opportunity!

Pat Willis, Executive Director

Voices for Georgia’s Children

This Tuesday Voices and Family Connection were given the opportunity to present to the House Committee on Children and Youth. Looking at the fact that about one child out of five in Georgia lives at or below the poverty level, and that more than a third of Georgia’s kids live in a family where no parent has full-time, year-round employment, where do you start to explain the dilemma our kids face?

Both organizations are great resources for laying out the case. Both have access to thorough data, wherever it exists, and both understand the interrelation of kids’ issues to each other: e.g. Georgia can not be successful if we don’t have an educated workforce, schools can not educate kids if those kids are sick, hungry, or are under stress at home, society can not function well if families are not equipped with the tools and knowledge to care for their children, and so on and so forth.

The key is to help policy makers prioritize the help kids get is to make sure that evidence-based information is readily available and easy to understand. Beyond that, helping lawmakers understand the navigation of local, state and federal dollars and service opportunities so that they can allocate resources in the most effective manner is crucial. Both Voices and Family Connection are helpful and knowledgeable resources for such strategy. I hope lawmakers will take full advantage of the help we provide and choose to really make a difference in outcomes for kids.

Urgent Issues for Georgia’s Children in 2011 PowerPoint

Today, Legislative Day 3, was what many consider the “first work day” for state lawmakers. No special ceremonies or speeches; no snow or ice. Overall, Georgia House and Senate committees are just getting warmed up, having organizational meetings and starting to examine agency budgets in a little more detail than perhaps they did last week during the FY11/FY12 budget hearings. That said, I think today is an opportune time to discuss a sizeable federal issue which cold affect kids right here at home: Federal budget proposals.

This week, Congressmen and women will vote on a resolution (H. Res 38) reducing federal spending to 2008 levels. This approach exempts defense spending. On the other hand, education, health, nutrition, and child welfare services would sustain significant reductions. For example, in this proposal, dollars going to children in special education grants would be cut by 53 percent. Head Start would be cut by 27 percent. Adoption incentives would be slashed by 89 percent. Yet, discussion on how to raise revenues has been surprisingly absent.

Another proposal by the Republican Study Committee would have Congress reduce spending to 2006 spending levels. This amounts to a $2.5 trillion cut over 10 years. It would even rescind any remaining stimulus money, as well as the bump in Medicaid support passed just last summer.

We believe that children are important to all of Georgia’s lawmakers. That said, if one of these resolutions were to pass, how would states like Georgia make up the difference in lost federal dollars?

The Governor’s FY2012 budget recommends consolidation and transfer of the Georgia Family Connection Partnership (FCP) appropriation from the Department of Human Services (DHS) to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families (GOCF). 

Georgia Family Connection was created 20 years ago to streamline services and systems that impact and serve children and families. FCP’s core principles are local decision-making based on reliable data, accountability, and leveraging resources.

The logic behind this move is baffling. Even today, at the Department of Human Services budget hearing, when Rep. Carolyn Hugley (District 133 – Columbus) asked DHS Commissioner Clyde Reese if he knew the reason for this move, he was unable to provide an answer.

FCP has a reputation for good, reliable work in 159 counties of the state and helps multitudes of children and families. It secures decent funding from the private sector (much of which would be lost if absorbed into GOCF) and has worked well with DHS. All that said, we are left with the inevitable question: What problem would this move solve? I don’t have an answer. Do you?

The Lottery funded Pre-K budget has been cut by $20 million down to $335 million and is projected to serve the same number of children as in FY2011: 84,000 kids. This endangers not only the quality of the classroom portion of the programs, which were, by national averages, already underfunded by about 25%, but also, potentially the number and function of the Pre-K Transition Coaches, who work in the communities to assess and provide supports for Pre-K families.

For Georgia’s public colleges, the budget for FY2012 is $303 million, down from $474 million. For Georgia’s private colleges, appropriations are down from $59 million to $40 million. Georgia Technical Colleges and Schools have taken a hit as well; FY2012 is budgeted at $132 million down from $206 million in FY2011. Check out our blog posting from 1/18/11 (The Recession is Doing All It Can) for more details.

Bottom Line:
The Governor does not want to count on Lottery reserves to help any of these programs, so something will need to give.

FY 2011:
For the current fiscal year Deal lowered the revenue estimate by $27.5 million while also adding more money for K-12 schools mostly to make up for increased enrollment. Most state agencies will have to enact 4 % cuts for the rest of FY2011, although most agencies have been aware that this could be the case, and so have been preparing for the formal ask.
FY 2012:
For 2012, Governor Deal believes state revenue will be 3.75% higher than the current fiscal year, but the need to replace more than $1 billion in federal stimulus money, which goes away at the end of FY 2011 will negate much of that growth. That said, state agencies are being asked to cut their budgets by an average of 7%.
What’s Next:
The budgets now go to the House Appropriations Committee which traditionally amends the budget, but cannot change the revenue estimates.


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January 2011