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Meg Snead: Investments in human services industries are an investment in our future

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For many Pennsylvanians, the people I call our caring workforce that make up the fabric of our social safety net give us the freedom to do our jobs and provide for our families.

For those of us with young children, we depend on our early childhood education providers to keep our kids safe and facilitate positive, healthy development.

If we have an older parent or a loved one with chronic medical needs, direct care professionals ensure their safety and provide the care and support they need to live independently.

If we have a loved one with an intellectual disability or autism, direct support professionals provide services and supports to assist people to live with their family and peers and work in their communities.

Their work enriches and sustains lives for nearly 560,000 children, adults and seniors in Pennsylvania as well as millions of their loved ones who get peace of mind knowing they have the care they need.

Over the course of the covid-19 pandemic, these dedicated, caring professionals have continued this work, often risking their own health and well-being to keep the people they care for safe. Without people to do this work, more parents and guardians would have to stay home and out of the workforce themselves, and thousands of people would have fewer opportunities to learn, grow and live independently as they deserve. The absence of a reliable and affordable caring infrastructure for everyone would impede our broader economic recovery and resulting in decades of fallout to come.

Our caring workforce is charged with protecting the most vulnerable among us, but this sometimes taxing work has historically been undervalued and chronically underfunded at all levels of government. This cannot continue, and one sector of government or the nonprofit sector cannot save this essential industry alone. We must work together to build human services infrastructure that sustains its workers, serves Pennsylvanians better, and truly meets the needs of our friends, neighbors and loved ones.

The Wolf administration has invested significantly in an effort to give these fields the financial support they deserve. Since 2015, state investments in services for people with intellectual disabilities and autism have grown by 60%, allowing us to reduce our waiting list for services by enrolling 6,600 people in home and community-based waivers and creating continuity in services as people graduate high school so young adults can continue education and independence fostered in school years.

A rebalancing of our long-term services and supports system for seniors and adults with physical disabilities through Community HealthChoices (CHC) has resulted in us moving from only 50% of people living in the community in 2015 to 72% today. Today, with CHC we have almost 115,000 people living in the settings of their choice. In addition, we have invested more than $400 million to support access to high quality, affordable child care for working families by increasing rates paid for providers accepting subsidized child care.

The American Rescue Plan Act is giving us the opportunity to further these investments and help stabilize this critical infrastructure. Through historic funding totaling $1 billion for our child-care industry and a temporary $1.2 billion funding increase in Medicaid reimbursement for home and community-based services, we are taking strides to help stabilize providers and support recruitment and retention, and taking meaningful steps toward increasing reimbursement rates. While we know these investments are a reprieve and not a panacea, they are a step in the right direction.

Absent a sustained commitment that recognizes the urgency of this moment, caring professionals will not be able to afford this career path and providers will find themselves operating in the same delicate balance.

All work has value, but we must recognize the inherent obligation we, as a society, have for caring for others. This industry is a catalyst for all other sectors of our economy, and we are responsible for setting a sustainable path forward for these essential services and the people who do this work every day.

The Biden administration’s economic plan set forth through Build Back Better has the potential to make a historic, sustainable commitment to the people who perform this work every day. Caring professionals invest in our family and our loved ones every day, and their work is a service we will all need at various points of our lives. They deserve better, and it’s time we return this investment.

Meg Snead is Pennsylvania’s acting secretary of human services.