The Human Services Budget
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
March 2015

The appropriation bill for the Department of Human Services may be the most important bill you never hear about.

The Department of Human Services is large. Its budget for the 2013-2015 biennium was over $3 Billion. This session’s bill requests $3.6 Billion, but expect the final bill to be less after adjustments in light of falling oil revenues. The department has over 2,200 full-time employees. (Full disclosure, my wife is one of them.)

While it may be tempting to some to see the department’s budget as proof of an overgrown bureaucracy, the truth is that the department’s services include a wide range of programs that, if looked at individually, are not particularly large or expensive. About 33% of the budget consists of Medicaid and children’s health insurance payments, but the rest covers many other services. These include:

  • Long-term care, which includes nursing homes
  • Special needs adoption
  • Foster care
  • Care for individuals with developmental disabilities, including guardianship services
  • Autism services
  • Abortion alternatives services
  • Guardianship establishment and Vulnerable Adult Protective Services
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
  • The human service centers
  • The state hospital
  • Child support services
  • Various substance abuse programs
  • The Life Skills and Transition Center (formerly known as the Developmental Center)
  • Child care assistance
  • Low Income Home Energy Assistance
  • Senior Meals Programs
  • Vocational Rehabilitation

And there are many more. In fact, the budget request had 55 separate line items, most of which are for unique services. Chances are, if you or a family member has ever been sick, struggling financially, in a nursing home, disabled, facing a mental illness or behavioral health problem, divorced with a child, or unexpectedly pregnant, you have had contact with the Department of Human Services.

It should be pointed out that about 60% of the department’s budget comes from federal, not state dollars. Nevertheless, the breadth of the department’s actions and size of the total budget can make it seem overwhelming and an easy target when it comes to “trimming” government spending. After all, the poor, sick, and struggling don’t have strong lobbying organizations.

Another challenge is that some people believe that these services should be provided entirely through private charities, especially the churches. Certainly churches have a role to play. Charity is a Christian obligation. There is, however, a difference between charity, which is freely given in response to an immediate need, and justice, which is due to a person because of their dignity as a human person. The Church teaches that we should not leave to charity that which is already due as a matter of justice.

We also need to recognize that, mostly out of a desire to protect citizens, the provision of human services has become professionalized and regulated. As a consequence, the cost of covering all these services would be beyond the capability of the charitable sector. If you are already tired of the diocese’s capital campaigns, imagine what it would be like if churches had to raise another $1.5 Billion annually.

The Department of Human Services bill is not like an abortion or school choice bill, where you can email your legislator with a simple “yes” or “no” request. The bill will be passed. The question is what in it will be funded and at what level. How, as Catholics citizens, do we engage in the development of such a bill?

Something the Wisconsin Catholic Conference recently wrote about budget bills in general applies to the Department of Human Services bill. It wrote:

While they contain numerous facts, data, and projections, state budgets are documents through which our state makes choices and sets priorities.  They are about how needs are met and which are deferred or denied.  As such, they are moral documents that define the values of those who enact them.
While the WCC does not take a position for or against the state budget as a whole, it does address aspects of the budget that advance or hinder important priorities.  For Catholics, a vital priority is always that of meeting the needs of the poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized.

Ultimately, the budget bill is a moral document that reflects who we are as a state. The least we can do is pray for the legislators that will review the department’s bill.

Heavenly Father, grant wisdom and open hearts to our elected officials as they decide how best to help our neighbors, especially the least among us. Amen.