Budget Cuts Endanger Rhode Island's Most Vulnerable

From delaying span repair to limiting school funding, cuts cause severe strain.

Oct. 13, 2008 — -- If you want to get a sense of how your state government may look soon, check out Rhode Island.

The governor and state legislature were forced to make budget cuts that are affecting nearly every aspect of life.

From postponing bridge repairs -- about half of bridges are considered deficient -- to cutting back hours at the Department of Motor Vehicles, to raising fees at senior citizen centers.

The state has also been unable to provide additional funding for struggling public schools.

At the University of Rhode Island, experienced professors were encouraged to retire in exchange for less experienced, less expensive faculty.

The budget cuts have affected the school "in every way possible," said Brenna McCabe, editor in chief of the Good Five Cent Cigar, the University of Rhode Island's student newspaper.

"I think they're under the impression that the quality of education here is decreasing," McCabe said.

Rhode Island may be a canary in the coal mine. This state, which has the second highest unemployment rates in the nation, was hit hard by the housing bubble, went into recession and had to make significant budget cuts. Hundreds of city and state workers have had their benefits cut. Now other states are catching up.

Virginia laid off 570 state workers; Missouri is delaying plans to fix its main airport; Minnesota scrapped a plan to expand its 911 system. And California said it might have to ask the Federal Reserve System for a loan to cover expenses at schools, police stations and nursing homes.

As often happens when budgets are cut, it is Rhode Island's poor who suffer the most.

The main food bank has seen its state funding slashed by half -- at a time when it's seeing a flood of new clients.

There is "more need and more people who are really desperate for help," said Andrew Schiff, executive director of Rhode Island Community Food Bank. "And that's what we're really concerned about. It's not even winter."

At the state's largest homeless shelter, which is also dealing with big budget cuts, the living room has turned into a makeshift bedroom for 16 women. At night, the chairs double as beds.

The staff is worried it they might be forced to cut back on much-needed services.

"The shelter itself holds 40 women and we have 60 right now and it's only October," said Anne Nolan, president of Crossroad Rhode Island's homeless and women's shelter. "We are seeing women who are getting kicked off welfare and women who are losing their jobs, and by the time winter rolls around, I can't imagine what's going to happen at that point."

Facing unprecedented budget cuts, all sectors are feeling the strain of limited resources to go around.

"There's a real concern that the cuts are hurting the most vulnerable people in the state," said Gov. Donald Carcieri. "Well, we're trying hard not to. We really are. ? We're doing everything we can to try to maintain that safety net."

With the national economy now heading into a recession, Rhode Island's governor said he fears that bigger budget cuts might follow.

"Right now state workers [are] bearing the brunt of this, immigrants bearing the brunt of this, poor people bearing the brunt of this," said Maureen Moakley, an associate professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. "But in a year from now it's going to be much wider and there are a lot of people who are going to be furious. To use the cliche, it's going to get worse before it gets better."