Editorial: Welfare should be a shared state burden
Concord’s welfare budget for this year is just shy of $380,000. Though that sum is down from the peak years of the recession, it almost certainly won’t be enough, thanks to downshifting from state and federal government.
The economy has improved; unemployment levels have fallen. But rents continue to increase while the supply of federally subsidzed housing shrinks. The waiting list in New Hampshire is now more than nine years. More people need rental assistance to avoid becoming homeless.
Federal cuts to the food stamp and heating assistance programs mean more people are turning to the city’s human services department for help. And the steady stream of refugees resettled in Concord by the federal government adds to the problem, though only in the short run. Meeting applicants’ needs, which the city must do by state law, will almost certainly bust the city’s welfare budget.
It will do so because New Hampshire’s reliance on cities and towns to provide welfare is unusual, if not unique. A 1791 state law says that “Any person in a town or city who is poor and unable to support himself shall be relieved and maintained by the overseers of public welfare of such town, whether or not he has residence there.” In other states, welfare costs are borne by county governments or the state itself. As a result, in cities that become magnets for those in need of assistance, welfare costs are shared at the state or county level. The burden is shared. Not so in New Hampshire.
The State Department settles refugees in four New Hampshire cities – Concord, Nashua, Manchester and Laconia – but it doesn’t provide enough money for them to find jobs and make the transition to life in a new country. Some of the difference must be made up by taxpayers. Most of Concord’s refugees are Bhutanese of Nepali origin who were driven out of Bhutan and interred in camps in Nepal. Like most refugees, they need help at first but become self-sufficient relatively quickly.
Journalists Sue Halpern and Bill McKibben, writing in this month’s Smithsonian magazine, profiled Manchester’s Bhutanese community. “There are two things we tell our young people, when they arrive, Suraj Budathoki told the writers. “Get a job, whatever level. And go to school.” Most of Manchester’s Bhutanese refugees have secured jobs. The graduation rate for Bhutanese high school students last year was 100 percent. In an effort that is part of the refugees’ desire to blend into their new surroundings, many of the children born to refugee couples are given American first names.
Concord’s Bhutanese community is similarly enterprising, its members unlikely to require assistance for long. But the city is also home to one prison with another coming soon, a psychiatric hospital and other institutions whose populations, when released, remain in the city and often require assistance. And new groups of refugees will continue to arrive. All add to the city’s welfare bill. That bill take many forms: help with rent and utilities, vouchers for hotels and medications and, yes, even help at the end of life.
The Legislature, while digging for savings during the downturn, stopped paying to bury paupers. Indigent burials are now the responsibility of cities and towns. As a result, if one more poor person dies in Concord this fiscal year, the city’s burial fund will be exhausted. Live free and die at the expense of Concord taxpayers.
Concord’s legislators should join with their counterparts in Nashua, Manchester and Laconia to change the system so the burden of providing welfare assistance is shared equitably by the state and all its municipalities. Lawmakers from other communities are unlikely to volunteer out of fairness to vote for a change that could cost their constituents money. Levers may have to be found, but a move to a fairer system is long overdue.