It's a civic duty to fight for vital programs

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If there is any truth to the old adage, "strength in numbers," then last Thursday's gathering of community service organizations was a hopeful sign that President Trump's deplorable budget proposal will land in the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Local advocates say the president's $4.1 trillion proposed budget would significantly cut social programs such as food stamps, Medicaid and Social Security disability benefits. To be clear, none of this is set in stone. Trump's proposal, as CNN notes, is more a symbolic statement of policy than a practical budget that is expected to be adopted in full. As usual, Congress remains intent on writing its own budget, so Trump's plan is unlikely to go far on Capitol Hill. Nevertheless, Trump's proposal sent shivers of dread through the many organizations that work to improve access to health care, education and the social service programs our families and neighbors rely on. Southeastern Vermont Community Action Executive Director Steve Geller said threats to people's security, well-being and health brought the groups together Thursday night to galvanize broad community support.

The idea is to inspire local residents to become more engaged in civic life. If people want these programs to continue, then the people have to fight for them.

"We hope everyone takes some action on behalf of the organizations providing activities and initiatives in their communities or takes some ideas to follow up on," Geller said.

There were many opportunities for advocacy on display, with representatives outlining the perils of drastic budget cuts and what average citizens can do to protect these vital programs.

Hungry Free Vermont, which addresses food insecurity for low income residents, is worried about potential funding cuts to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. For Vermont, that would be 3Squares, which provides resources and programs to get food on tables. Meeting attendees were signing a petition in opposition to such cuts.

Dr. George Karabakakis, chief executive officer for Health Care & Rehabilitation Services of Southeastern Vermont, said Trump's budget would significantly compromise his organization's ability to meet its mission and vision. He said the proposal cuts Medicaid drastically — by $850 billion.

"It's already an under-funded system," he said.

MaryLou Beaver, New England Campaigns Director at Every Child Matters, said 81 percent of the country's human-needs programs have been cut from fiscal year 2010 to FY17 and only 19 percent had any expansion. Out of 167 programs tracked, she said, 135 of them saw cuts.

More cuts are on the way with Trump's proposed budget, Beaver warned. She said for Vermonters getting SNAP benefits last year, 49,847 households could see reductions and 3,532 households could lose them altogether. And programs offering heating assistance to low-income households are proposed to see cuts.

"We need you to take action," Beaver said. "We need you to put these cuts in people terms, not just in program terms. We need your stories. We need personal stories. We need family stories. We need to hear how these programs worked for you, worked for your grandparents, worked for your elderly parents."

Those stories are being collected now at chn.org and handsoff.org.

Of course, here in Vermont it's not difficult to find a sympathetic ear to these concerns from our congressional delegation, all of whom had representatives at the local meeting.

Katarina Lisaius, staff assistant for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. said the Trump budget "constitutes a massive transfer of wealth from working families, the elderly, the children, the poor and the sick to the top 1 percent."

Lisaius said the proposed budget also makes it tougher to get education and health care. She called on attendees to reach out to legislators with strong and innovative ideas.

"Trump's budget is immoral," she added. "It's not for working families. It's not for the middle class. It's the budget for the billionaire class and it must be defeated."

But with our own congressional delegation already fully on board, what's a civic-minded citizen from one of the bluest states in the nation to do? That's where the Southern Vermont chapter of Sister District Project come into play. The group works on getting local residents to promote Democrats campaigning in traditionally red states.

"Right now, our sister race is in Virginia," said Peg Alden, district co-captain. "We raise money and we're doing phone banking."

These are just some of the ways that average citizens, as a collective group, can make a difference and protect these programs. We hope even more people attend the next local meeting on June 8, at 6:30 p.m. at the Brattleboro Food Co-op's community room.

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