Speaking of Women's Rights: Making Families Count in Idaho

Monday, February 28, 2011

Making Families Count in Idaho

A guest post by Dina Flores-Brewer

Recently, the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare released their most recent numbers on Idaho's marriages and divorces; live births and abortions; and suicides among men and women What do the numbers say? Marriages are down, divorces are up. Live births are down, abortions are up. Suicides among both men and women are way up. The study gives us data about the state of our health and welfare that, on the surface, points to a decreased quality of family life for many Idahoans. It begs the question, what's happening to Idahoan families? What does it take to keep our families intact and secure?

These numbers are deceptively simple and do not paint a whole picture of what it takes to keep a family whole and strong. Most importantly, these numbers only look at a few of the outcomes of individuals in our state. In reality, between marriages and divorces, abortions and suicides, families are struggling to keep it together. They are raising children with dwindling resources; sending them to schools with shrinking budgets (note the proposed legislation to cut funding for Kindergarten education for all but a few children statewide); trying not to be bankrupted by medical and healthcare bills; and keeping a roof over their heads in a state that's now ranked at the bottom for home values and climbing foreclosure rates. Families are being bombarded by forces beyond their control. The State of Idaho has constructed a network of resources using public funding to create safety nets – public schools, public healthcare, and public safety agencies—and these resources are being yanked out from underneath vulnerable families at a time when there is nothing to replace them.

Many Idaho families feel profoundly alone and isolated. People in our community have been told by their elected officials, most recently by Governor Otter, that they will simply have to do more with less, need to tighten their already suffocating belts and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. These words are tragically hollow in an economy where few are wearing shoes any more.

So I am not surprised by the increases in suicide rates. It speaks to a heightened sense of isolation and desperation that is frighteningly too common these days. And state services are simply not able to keep up. Since 2008, Idaho’s mental health services have been cut by nearly 25%. The Department of Health and Welfare has cut or left unfilled 35 full-time positions to assist adults with mental health problems, and 14 positions to help Idaho youth. Last year, many adults with disabilities lost cash assistance, and many more were told to pay several hundred dollars per month in cost sharing or risk losing their Medicaid eligibility. Several Health and Welfare offices were permanently closed in rural communities, decreasing access to needed services and assistance. This fiscal year, Health and Welfare is again being told to find another $35-50 million in cuts in programs that have already been cut beyond the bone. So far, the Legislature and Governor Otter have adamantly refused to try to locate additional revenue.

Perhaps less attention will be paid to the statistics about birth in our state. What does it mean when abortion rates increase and the rates of live births decrease in our state? While conservatives will likely point to this data as yet another reason to try to restrict abortion access in our state, these numbers ought to make all of us, regardless of political affiliation or personal belief, ask what can we do about it? I cannot presume to know what is going on in these women's lives, but these numbers say a lot about the belief of women in our state on the ability to raise a family -- about their individual readiness and our community readiness to support families.

I do know one thing. This data tells us about maternity and morbidity, but it doesn’t tell us about the many ways that women across the state are working to change our lives and to protect our families. Our organization, the Women of Color Alliance, has mobilized our leaders and members to be a part of the decision making process in Boise this year and make our voices heard. We are going to show up, stand up and speak out against the budget cuts that have deflated the public infrastructure that vulnerable Idaho families rely on. We also plan to help mitigate the unforeseen consequences of the healthcare refusals law that was passed in last year's legislature. And finally, WOCA is supporting the ACLU’s efforts to ban shackling for pregnant women incarcerated in Idaho because every woman deserves dignity, safety and respect as they anticipate motherhood.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has given us all some alarming data to ponder. WOCA and our allies will be doing our part to help keep our families strong—but what will our elected officials do?

This post appeared originally on the Western States Center Blog.