Vote ‘No’ on the Allegheny County Children’s Fund

In addition to the various critical elections facing us on November 6, there is also a critical referendum item – the ‘Allegheny Children’s Fund’ referendum asking for a voluntary 5% property tax hike to pay for early learning, after-school programs and healthy meals for kids.

I hope it goes without saying that I believe that investing in children’s welfare, especially around these critical needs, is a paramount duty of both local government and the residents of a community. If you doubt me on that matter, just stop reading. Or you can read the past 13 years of blog posts. Your choice.

But … I do not believe this particular referendum is a good idea or a sound policy approach to child welfare. Here’s why:

First, this is a budget without a plan. There is no infrastructure and side-stepping the County Council via referendum minimized robust public debate on these important matters. As a rule, we don’t fund programs without a plan. That’s a situation ripe for corruption and wasteful spending.

Another concern for me is that there is zero indication that LGBTQ children and youth (and LGBTQ families with children and youth) will be given any consideration or priority. A referendum can’t lay out a comprehensive plan, so we have to look elsewhere for inclusivity indicators.

The leading proponents of this effort are thee local non-profit organizations, all helmed by cisgender heterosexual men – Patrick Dowd, Jesse McLean, and Dave Coplan. The absence of someone among this leadership vortex who is a woman and/or part of the LGBTQ community speaks volumes for those of us who are used to these scenarios of being told what is best for our young people (and us) by cishet men. Admonishments about good intentions do not translate into solid or inclusive policy practices. It is a troubling reflection that in a field dominated by women, including many women of color, the three organizations sponsoring this are helmed by cishet men.

We cannot allow ourselves to trust in their good intentions. They should know very well that we cannot make that leap of faith in this political environment. The lack of specifics or any indicator that LGBTQ youth and children (and their families) will be protected in an atmosphere that is increasingly hostile to their welfare and safety is troubling.

Transgender youth in particular are literally being erased from existence by the federal government so we must, must, must insist that their identities be prioritized.

Next, there’s no reason to think these organizations would invest so much money on a referendum that will not pay off in some way for their respective programs. According to the Children’s Fund’s own campaign finance report, as of June there were three nonprofit corporations who donated $427,000 to the campaign: the Human Services Center gave $160,000, Pressley Ridge Foundation gave $150,000, and Allies for Children gave a donation of $45,000 and another for $72,000.

That’s A LOT of money directed to advocacy, lobbying, and marketing – money that could actually have been spent on existing programs for children and youth. I’m skeptical that any nonprofit would invest this sort of money without anticipating a windfall. We’ll see on that one: if it passes and those organizations win contracts, boom. If it does not pass and those boards do not hold the directors accountable for the loss, boom.

In fact, that’s another overarching concern – wouldn’t it be smart to invest any such lump of tax revenue into existing programs that are doing well aka have a proven track record? It isn’t like we don’t have a lot of afterschool programs, food security services, and more in place throughout Allegheny County, most of which have some sort of oversight relationship through the County government. I agree that we don’t have enough, so thoughtful expansion of what has proven successful seems prudent.

Finally, I think about precedent. There are other critical needs that are not properly addressed by our current governments – needs for our elders, for persons with disabilities, for single parents, for those who lack access to healthcare, and more. Hunger certainly knows no age constraint. It would be foolish to use a series of incremental tax increases through referendums to address these mounting needs when a straightforward tax revenue decision by County Council could have the same impact.

We would add scores of additional layers of oversight to a County government that’s pretty big. And clearly not responsive. Layering in a volunteer board to administer one stream of child welfare funding feels like we are creating another trough for orgs to compete for on top of all of their current obligations.

Others more credible than I have also said No to this referendum. School board directors from various districts were not consulted and spoke out. That’s a serious red flag in an era when nonprofits support for public education is eroding.

The Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network says no.

John Welch posted about the disproportionate tax burden on low and moderate income homeowners, especially with so many tax decisions coming down the pike (think PWSA and green infrastructure mandates.)

A coalition of the Education Rights Network, One Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, PIIN, and the Service Employees International Union expressed concerns, but didn’t actually call for a no vote.

According to PublicSource:

The ERN opposes the children’s fund over concerns that “historically marginalized children, including black, brown and disabled children” would lose their rights under federal law if money from the fund goes to non-school entities.

“Children whose rights are protected by enforceable state and federal laws lose these protections during after-school and PreK programs unless they are administered by the public school system, a condition that is not guaranteed under this referendum,” the ERN statement said.

For a more comprehensive explanation of the referendum and the folks involved, read this excellent piece from PublicSource.

Finally, I learned about a blog called Gadfly on the Wall which has a solid piece up analyzing this referendum.

I urge you to vote no. Good intentions do not replace good planning. Starting somewhere is not necessarily better than starting with where we are now. The number of ‘good ideas’ that did not generate results in spite of the ‘good intentions’ of the organizers is legion. We can do better than this.

Full Disclosure – I was an intern, employee, and student of Dave Coplan at the Human Services Center Corporation from Jan 1999 – Nov 2001. I haven’t spoken to him in more than ten years, but I can say that he is the person who taught me to always think about precedent. In fact, he taught me more than any other supervisor I’ve ever had. 

I was also supervised by Jesse McLean for about a year while I worked for then-Family Services of Western Pennsylvania (now Wesley Family Services) in the foster care department. I was there from 2004-2009 and reported to him for the final year before I left to work with another organization.  I also haven’t spoken with him in many years.