Faculty and student research the effect of 2009 Pennsylvania budget impasse on local agencies

Gettysburg College Sociology Professor Michael Gibbons and students blended research methods with public policy to help community service organizations in South Central Pennsylvania.

As many states did last year, Pennsylvania lawmakers struggled to pass a budget in a strained economy - arguing between cutting programs or raising taxes. The state went more than 100 days without a budget in 2009, making it the last state in the country operating without one. And the impact on community service organizations (CSOs) throughout Pennsylvania was significant.

During new faculty orientation at Gettysburg College last summer, Gibbons met Gretchen Natter, director of the college's Center for Public Service. The two struck up a conversation about community-based research and the impact the budget impasse had on CSOs locally. Gibbons offered to help by making this the topic of a research project topic for two of his fall courses.

"When a student is sitting across from someone who says, ‘I don't know what to do. I don't have a plan for the future,' it gives a level of meaning," Gibbons said. "You can do sociology and study these things from books and talk about them in class, but to go out and see how different people are living their lives - and we've got a country of 300 million people with all different kinds of lives. Until you see that diversity, it is difficult to imagine."

Students conducted qualitative fieldwork to understand the effects of the budget impasse. They interviewed a range of people associated with the organizations, including managers, staff, volunteers, and clients. Students were responsible for recruitment, interviews, transcription, analysis, reports, and group discussions. Findings were aggregated and blurred to protect confidentiality. Organizations included the Gettysburg Community Soup Kitchen, United Way of Adams County, South Central Community Action Programs (SCCAP), YWCA of Gettysburg, and Survivors.

The research showed that the budget impasse had a disastrous effect on the CSOs. The tie-up of state funding and federal monies funneled through the state had the CSOs scrambling to find resources and means to maintain their level of services. They laid off workers, shut down programs, extended their business credit, secured loans and aid from local businesses and organizations, and petitioned for help from community citizens.

For example, SCCAP, which offers human services to low-income families and individuals in Gettysburg, had a temporary reduction of 90% of their funding. By the end of the budget impasse, SCCAP was owed more than $2.5 million in state and federal funding. The organization closed more than 17 programs and only critical programs, such as the homeless shelter, food pantry, and WIC programming stayed open due to private, no-interest loans and donations. The United Way of Adams County tapped their entire line of credit during the budget impasse to maintain their programs and support of outside agencies.

The budget finally passed in October, but most CSOs lost valuable ground and momentum during the impasse. Many haven't been able to bring back all of their employees or start up some of their programs.

Following up with this research, Gibbons was a featured speaker at a February press conference in Pennsylvania's Capitol Building in Harrisburg, sponsored by the United Way of Pennsylvania. The event was to raise awareness of the significance of budget impasses on CSOs in hopes that Pennsylvania won't repeat it in 2010. Gibbons shared the findings from the students' research, which basically resulted in one overwhelming argument going forward: Let's avoid another budget impasse crisis with better planning and less politicizing by lawmakers.

 

Posted: Fri, 19 Feb 2010

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