Posted: Thursday, November 5, 2015 - 14:51
We’re fresh from an off-year election in which only 25 percent of Allegheny County’s registered voters went to the polls, and we’re also weary from four months-plus of a bitterly partisan state budget stand-off.
But just when we’re convinced that citizens don’t care enough to get involved and that government will never be able to get its act together, along comes a shining example of the opposite.
On November 6, the United Way of Allegheny County and The Pittsburgh Foundation will lead a celebration event marking the accomplishments of a remarkable group of Pennsylvanians who have joined together under the banner of “I Want to Work.” For the past year, the group has been leading a social media and advocacy campaign representing tens of thousands of the state’s teenagers and young adults who are disabled. These are our friends and neighbors who want to work and who are qualified to work, but who can’t get onto the employment pathway for a range of reasons.
The government-affirming part of the celebration is that state Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Republican representing Central Pennsylvania counties, also will be recognized as a key supporter of legislation that places young people on the track to gainful employment. We at The Pittsburgh Foundation commend Sen. Corman, along with other supportive Republicans and Democrats in the state Senate and the House, among them, Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana; and Sen. Lisa Baker, the Republican chair of the Labor & Industry Committee; for responding so strongly to this impassioned group. They recognized early on that these young people – themselves dealing with disabilities – are trying to build a better Pennsylvania, not just for the young who are disabled, but for all of us.
When it comes to funding new government programs, Sen. Corman is usually the one with his eye on the price tag and a hand firmly on the budget brake. But there are powerful economic and cultural arguments behind the abling-the-disabled legislation that passed the House in a unanimous 198-0 vote in April. The strong benefits have convinced conservatives such as Corman and liberal Democrats in the Senate to work together in pushing the legislation into law.
The bill could lead to $5 million coming from the state to trigger $19 million in federal support for programs and services. But regardless, it ensures that the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation is fully operational and capable of implementing integrated summer and out-of-school employment.
While the state’s unemployment rate is near the 5 percent mark, 65 out of 100 Pennsylvanians with disabilities can’t find work that would reduce or eliminate their need for government assistance programs. The state invests an average of $200,000 in education and support services for each young resident who is disabled under the false premise that he or she is being prepared for employment. But for the state and the majority of those receiving services, the investment ends up being a loser.
The result is an entire group of people disenfranchised from the dignity of work. People who are disabled want to work and have more control of their futures rather than have the federal government limit them to near-impoverishment on monthly Social Security disability benefits.
The bill, now having sped past several way-stops in the Senate, is expected to match the House approval margin when it comes up for a vote soon.
Now how often do we see that degree of agreement in Harrisburg?
While the partnership of elected officials is key to success in this initiative, none of the opportunities soon to be available for the state’s young people who are disabled would be possible without the passionate commitment of activists on the campaign. Its leader, Dr. Josie Badger, has been known throughout Pennsylvania for years as a tireless advocate for policy changes to improve daily life for those living with disabilities – especially in the area of equal employment opportunity.
Much of the operational work for the campaign has come through the Campaign for What Works, our lobbying initiative in Harrisburg, headed by John Denny and Steve Drachler of Denny Civic Solutions. Their guidance on strategy and networking has been invaluable.
Amid the recent depressing examples of government paralysis and citizen apathy, we are grateful to have this bright and promising example of collaboration in pursuit of a policy goal that defines the basic quality of life standard for people of this state: the right to work and the right to the human dignity that comes with it.
Maxwell King is president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation