“Fracture critical” is a term we all learned after the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in 2007. A less dramatic collapse is happening now, cruelly impacting tens of thousands in all parts of the state.
Too much of the human service system (care for abused children, the frail elderly and people with disabilities; treatment for the mentally ill, and support for the poorest families) is unreliable and “fracture critical” due to underfunding and a resulting workforce crisis.
While the Star Tribune regularly reports on system shortcomings and the horror stories when people are abused or fall through the cracks, the problems are much more pervasive than those glimpses portray.
• Kids removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect are often placed with foster families (if they’re available). We generally pay foster families only $18 to $25 per day for food, housing, clothes, transportation, field-trip fees and everything else for the 24/7 care of traumatized kids. Weekend baby sitters make more covering a night out.
• Minnesota once led in home care and community supports as alternatives to institutional care for frail seniors and people with disabilities. It’s more individualized with better outcomes and costs less — a winning combination. We’re all just an accident or diagnosis away from needing this care.
That system is falling apart in a workforce crisis. This important work pays many workers only $10 to $11.50 an hour. Retail jobs pay more. There are 8,500 vacancies, and some of these unfilled jobs are connected to someone who will be in crisis without that care. These jobs deserve $15 an hour, but didn’t get a mere 5 percent increase.
• Our mental health system has terrible gaps, as well as patient and worker risks due to understaffing in the most intense programs. One psychiatric nurse said that many in state hospital care could have avoided the average seven-year stay (costing millions of dollars) if they’d gotten good care earlier.
• While policy leaders argue about what flavor of early-childhood support is best, 7,200 low-income working families are on a waiting list for affordable sliding-fee-based child care. The wait in Hennepin County is over two and a half years. The most significant brain development happens in the first three years of life. So how are those kids doing?
People’s lives and health are at stake. A wrong dose of medication from a tired employee working a double shift, increased suicides, kids with inadequate care, and more are among the real risks in the everyday lives of people whose only fault is to have been born into poverty, or to live long enough to need help with failing health, or to have a disability or a chronic health problem.
Our care systems have fallen so far that a federal judge is overseeing our disability system and the federal government has our Anoka state treatment center on a short leash after threatening to deny funding.
The common response is crossed fingers and “maybe next year.” Hearings were held this year that raised the hopes of many. But the Republican House budget prioritizes tax cuts and transportation and gives zero new funds to health and human services. Through controversial cuts, they found some funds for a few popular programs, but left most programs in desperate shape despite a $900 million surplus.
In human services, unlike with transportation or tax cuts, there are no well-funded armies of lobbyists, no businesses salivating at the prospect of many years of new spending streams or tax relief. In human services there are only caring groups hoping to address undermet needs fighting one another over severely limited funding.
Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt recently said that “starving” the future general fund would be a good thing. That would make the current situation even worse.
Life may not be fair, but it shouldn’t be cruel — not when we understand the solutions and just need the will to make a difference. Not funding crisis-level repairs to the safety net when we have a $900 million surplus is cruel.
Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, is a member of the Minnesota House.