Friday, November 23, 2007

What do we really value?

Today is Thanksgiving Day and I am grateful for the many blessings in my life. Professionally, I am thankful to live in a community that understands and acknowledges the importance of evidenced-based supported employment in the recovery of adults with serious and persistent mental illnesses (SPMI) and serious mental illnesses (SMI). With that said, my bar of authenticity has been raised a notch higher. I need more than platitudes and expressions about a progressive vision. I need to see in action what we say we really value.
During last week’s Democratic Party Presidential Debate in Las Vegas aired on 11-15-07, Senator Joseph Biden from Delaware had this to say– "My Dad had this expression, God love him, before the passed away. He’d say, ‘Don’t tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I will tell you what you value.’
As a true a statement as one will hear from a candidate running for Presidential office. I don’t know about you but I am tired of empty words. I’ve grown weary listening to rhetoric about the importance of work and self-reliance of unemployed and disenfranchised Americans. Do we really mean it? We are great at expressing values and the importance of extending economic opportunities to all Americans. We are not so skilled at elevating the right funding policies and service practices to make it happen.
I’ve had a chance to observe the elder Biden’s wisdom during the past two weeks. After 24-years of delivering high quality job placement and supported employment services (SES) for adults with SPMI and their employers, my agency received a notice that Hennepin County is proposing to discontinue this program in January of 2008. We had not received any notice about the possible closure of this program prior to receiving a form letter on November 8, 2007. Closing down a successful supported employment program in less than two months? Yikes!
We were told the reason is due to an impending budget shortfall for 2008. We’re finding the decision difficult to understand. Hennepin County’s stated priorities and long-term goals include promoting "individual self-reliance and a livable income," and its strategic funding priorities for 2008 include "prevention, ending homelessness, and better integrating community services." Well, we believe our services are contributing to such efforts in a meaningful way right now.
In our view, the impending loss of this SES program is shortsighted. We recognize that SES is not a mandated County program; however, it offers customized and supported employment for some of Hennepin County’s most vulnerable adults. At Rise, we are not big advocates of labeling people, however, SES does work with many challenging-to-employ individuals.
To illustrate, 100% of enrolled participants live with SPMI and 71% have co-occurring disabilities of SPMI and substance abuse. In addition, 22% have criminal histories (17% with felony convictions) and seven percent are diagnosed as mentally ill and dangerous (MI/D). Virtually all of SES’ participants have experienced multiple hospitalizations and chronic unemployment due to the debilitating effects of their mental illnesses. Also, this program supports individuals who are homeless or at-risk of homelessness, a stated priority of Hennepin County for 2008.
To say it simply, SES supports individuals with complex lives who are highly dependent on public assistance and County services. As former President Bill Clinton once said—"The best social program is a good job." I agree. Whether one is homeless, living in an institutional setting, or unemployed and struggling to survive in the community, a good job is the only true way to escape a lifetime of poverty and long-term dependence on government services.
On November 13, 2007, Rise’s President John Barrett, and I had the opportunity to offer public testimony to the County’s Board of Commissioners. We shared how our company’s supported employment programs are provided to eligible individuals through an integrated mix of county, federal, State, and private funding streams. With a Hennepin County investment of $247,053 in 2006, Rise leveraged an additional $693,591 for a total budget of $941,004 to help address an array of unmet local needs (i.e., supporting refugees with limited English Proficiency and SMI).
With these combined resources, Rise increased its services and developed more competitive jobs in the workforce for adults with SPMI/SMI in 2006. The annualized earnings for all individuals placed were 1.65 million. The annual cost to Hennepin County was $1,600 per employment outcome. In my view, this an excellent return on investment! SES is certainly a bargain in contrast to more expensive mental health treatment programs that will likely be necessary to support many of the individuals currently being served.
As my agency looks ahead, we have grave concerns about the welfare and stability of many employed individuals who will lose access to the job support they receive from our trained staff. Many rely on it. Indeed many of their employers rely on it. Without responsive, supported employment services, we anticipate many will sadly lose their jobs. Some will lose employment suddenly. Others will lose their employment over time because many job-related supports offered by SES are not available in the workplace. Given what we already know about many of these vulnerable adults, it will require increases in County case management, mental health treatment, and other program services to support these individuals in making adjustments to any impending changes. If these costs exceed $1,600 per person, the County taxpayers will pay the difference.
Here is what is so frustrating. As I look at the overall architecture of federal, State, and county budgets, it’s clear a lion’s share of our taxpayer’s dollars are invested in programs that reinforce segregation and long-term dependency of adults with disabilities. We are not investing adequately in public policy directions that expect, reinforce, and reward competitive employment and wage income in the workforce. Instead we have a crafted an "industry" of mandated programs and entitlements that are vested in long-term care and assured dependency. And what happens when our public agency budgets are strained or unmanageable? Too often, non-mandated programs that offer the best opportunities for obtaining individual productivity and economic self-reliance get the proverbial ax. It makes no sense.
We recognize Hennepin County’s impending budget challenges are real. With that said, the complete gutting of an established, successful employment program like SES is harsh. Moreover, it will likely cost the County more money than it saves. We’ve had productive meetings with a number of Commissioners and the County’s administration who seem to grasp the core issues. For this reason, we are hopeful a solution can be found to continue this valuable employment assistance program into 2008 and beyond.
Yes, it's Thanksgiving Day and I'm taking an account of what we truly value in our public support of unemployed adults with SPMI. I now have a new standard of measurement. "Show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value."
Thank you, Mr. Biden.


Blogger Don Lavin said...

An Update!

On the afternoon of November 28, 2007 we received the phone call we’ve all been waiting for--Hennepin County’s Board of Commissioners has reinstated Rise’s SES-H funding for 2008!! Not only did the Board restore our contract, but we’ve been funded at the full level!!

Our great news has brought a range of emotions. On one hand, we are very excited and relieved. On the other hand, we are a bit humbled that one of Minnesota’s longest running and successful supported employment programs for adults with SPMI could have been so easily lost.

Of course, it was all about money. It seemed unfair but this program had fallen victim to a budget process where our history of success mattered little. And it has become abundantly clear to us, that we must do a much better job marketing the business economics of supported employment. The County Commissioners made an affirmative decision to reinstate the funding after they heard from stakeholders and recognized the fiscal impact of losing SES in contrast to funding the alernatives.

On a personal note, I would like to extend a sincere “thank you” to everyone who contributed to our short but intensive public education campaign with Hennepin County Commissioners about the importance of sustaining SES. We received invaluable support in the form of emails, letters, phone calls, public testimony, and individually scheduled meetings with Commissioners by Rise staff, participants, family members, colleagues, business leaders, mental health professionals, and the general public. Somehow, we prevailed! And the restoration of these funds will insure that Rise’s full network of supported employment services for adults with SPMI and SMI remain intact in Hennepin County in the coming year.

1:58 PM  

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