Facing a projected budget shortfall of more than $10 billion in the upcoming fiscal year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has proposed cuts to state funding for services to help struggling families stay together and prevent their children from being removed to foster care.
But child welfare advocates statewide are gearing up to fight the proposed cuts — which land just nine months before the state must comply with a landmark federal law prioritizing investment in family support and prevention services.
“COVID-19 has brought into high relief what we have long known: for children to thrive, they need a strong family and systems that are aligned, coordinated, and well-resourced,” Kate Breslin, president and CEO of the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, wrote in a statement released Friday. “With Family First implementation around the corner, the urgent need to address racial disparity in child welfare, and another wave of rising COVID-19 cases, now is the time to support families in crisis, not pull the rug out from under them.”
Prevention services are meant to reach families who have already been identified by the child welfare system as facing difficulty. They can include a wide range of services, from parenting classes to intensive clinical treatment for mental health or behavioral issues. Program staff also connect parents to external resources that can help them meet their basic needs, like housing support, heating subsidies, employment services and child care.
The governor’s executive budget, released last week, would cut state funding by 5% for prevention services — an amount totaling more than $30 million. Last year, about $25 million was ultimately cut from prevention funding.
Currently, the state reimburses counties for 62% of what they spend on prevention services, with no maximum cap; state law sets the reimbursement rate at 65%, but it was reduced after the financial crisis. If approved, Cuomo’s new proposal would further reduce state funding for prevention services to about 59% of counties’ total expenditures.
“Over time, there’s been a shift of the cost of preparing for Family First implementation from the state to counties,” said Crystal Charles, a child welfare policy analyst at the Schuyler Center. “Preventive services funding continues to be cut every year, and in many cases the state is attempting to improve and expand services with the same amount of funding or often less than before these efforts began.”
Providers in New York City and upstate anticipate that counties would pass the funding cut along to their programs, forcing them to reduce their prevention staff and the number of families served. In the Capital Region, Northern Rivers would have to reduce its reach by 50 to 100 families, said CEO Bill Gettman, who described the proposed cuts as the “wrong policy at the wrong time.”
In Queens, a 5% cut would likely mean Forestdale’s prevention program, now serving 500 families, could reach 25 fewer families each year, according to Executive Director Bill Weisberg. Last spring, when the borough was rocked by the one-two punch of soaring coronavirus infections and widespread job losses, the agency provided more than $250,000 in direct cash, food and other aid.
“Preventive programs have been particularly essential during the pandemic and will be during the recovery, because they are a community-based lifeline for families who have suffered the greatest losses of income, educational connection and bereavement,” Weisberg said.
The governor’s budget would also exact a 20% funding cut from a smaller program, Community Optional Prevention Services, that works to offer families support before a serious problem arises and brings them into contact with the child welfare system.
Advocates remain hopeful that there is still time to stop the cuts from taking effect. Cuomo has until mid-February to amend his initial proposal; if he doesn’t, pressure will fall on the state Legislature as lawmakers prepare their amendments to the governor’s budget. Gettman, of Northern Rivers, is preparing to testify against the cuts, while Charles and other members of the statewide child welfare coalition are planning to speak with legislators during virtual advocacy days in March.
To a great extent, the depth of the cuts will depend on how much aid is delivered to New York state in the next federal stimulus bill, which the Biden administration has proposed at a total of $1.9 billion. Cuomo has requested $15 billion in federal aid — enough to cover the projected budget shortfall from April 2020 through March of next year.
But his executive budget took a more conservative tack, accounting for just $6 billion in aid spread over the next two years.
“If the Governor’s full $15 billion aid request is approved, the State would be able to reverse or modify many of these difficult proposals,” the executive budget states. It estimates that across-the-board cuts, such as the one proposed for prevention services, could be reduced by $900 million.
And there has been some good news for the state budget lately: A midyear report showed higher than expected tax receipts, which led the governor to reduce many planned cuts from 10% to 5%. At one point last summer, the governor had said cuts could be as high as 20% if no federal aid materialized.
Advocates say they hope this year’s budget won’t be passed without more serious dialogue about the importance of funding human services — unlike last spring, when the state budget had to be passed amid the deadly first wave of the pandemic and statewide lockdown, giving the governor more control of the outcome.
“This year, there's more long-term thinking about how the decisions made now will impact people for the next year, as opposed to just doing what we need to do and thinking things will get better in the summer,” Charles said. “By now we've all learned that things aren't just going to get better in a few months.”