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Forum explores family stress in faltering economy

November 17, 2010

A panel of five social work experts met Wednesday at Manning House for a public forum that explored the impacts – often hidden – of the struggling economy on families across Arizona. Each panelist agreed that the stressors exacerbated by the current recession are negatively impacting families and social work programs and services, and that the effects could extend to future generations.

“The toll is serious,” said Craig LeCroy, professor of social work in Arizona State University’s College of Public Programs.

“We have some good evidence that with economic difficulties there are increases in all the major social problems such as domestic violence, child maltreatment, substance abuse and mental health.”

The panel was moderated by Arizona PBS affiliate KAET 8 producer Mike Sauceda and featured LeCroy, Cynthia Lietz, an assistant professor of social work at ASU; Arizona State Representative (Dist. 15) Krysten Sinema; Pete Hershberger, executive director of the Arizona Center for the Study of Children and Families; and Neal Young, director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

The forum, “Life on the Edge: The Hidden Social Impact of the Recession,” was hosted by the Tucson Component of ASU’s School of Social Work and organized by ASU Public Affairs. It featured a free-flowing discussion of topics from family stressors to social service limitations, and from those people most at risk during the economic recession to how high-risk groups will be impacted in the future.

“A lot of the hidden impact of this recession is the result it may have on our children and future generations,” said LeCroy, who has been a professor at ASU’s Tucson Component of the School of Social Work since 1994. “If parents are not able to do as much for their children – for example, providing reading material, buying equipment for sports, provide adequate meals – this can impact achievement. If parents can’t do as good as a job in their parenting, children may be more vulnerable to other influences.”

Rep. Sinema focused on the state’s governance and funding of public programs during the current economic downturn.

“This current recession is actually worse for Arizona than was the Great Depression,” she said. “Social service programs are offering less in the way of assistance than it has in the past; we are offering fewer services. The changes in governance that we are seeing are having a direct and significant impact on today’s families and also on the way we engage in governance and service to families in the future."

“We have seen many deep cuts; the situation is quite dire for people living on the edge,” she noted. “The Legislature isn’t just curtailing programs or not funding them, but eliminating them. What we have to do now is protect against the long-term impact of our ability to serve and assist in the future; not enough is being done currently to address this.”
Hershberger added that many services are funded by the state and on a local level, but that more and more the state is asking the cities and counties to foot a larger portion of the funding, which further stresses the system.

The panelists discussed a long list of social services that have been negatively impacted during the recession as more people seek relief, including childcare, health services, economic services, education, family services, shelters, transportation services, school reading and after-class programs, faith services and more.

“This crisis has led to severe stress on our social service workforce,” said Lietz. “Our ability to respond now and in the future is affected by having a workforce that is very stretched, carrying high caseloads, working extra hours, and having to do more with much less, and these are people with their own challenges. The system is stressed to capacity, which impacts our ability to help those in need.”

Young, who has announced he will be leaving DES in January, said the department is seeing more first-time applicants than ever before and noted that one in six Arizonans are receiving nutritional assistance, while more than 142,000 without jobs are receiving unemployment insurance.

Professor LeCroy noted that many people don’t appreciate the impact of job loss on a family.

“On the surface, there is a likely increase in family stress, and this stress is compounded by other difficulties,” he said.

“In some research, unemployment was the best predictor of domestic violence.

“A recent study found that unemployment and low wages can lead to increases in the crime rate. Because these may be families that did not face such difficulties in the past, they may be reluctant to seek help.”

The panelists encouraged forum attendees to reach out to elected leaders.

“Now is the time to get in touch with your local elected officials,” said Young.  “It’s important to let legislators know what’s important to you, whether it is lower taxes or childcare services; whatever it is. It’s a good way to be heard, and legislators are interested in the voices of their constituents.”

For Leitz, as services see funding and donations dwindle, altruism is a win-win opportunity.

“It is important to get involved,” said the ASU assistant professor. “There is research available, and I have done studies, that demonstrate the positive impacts of altruism on those on the receiving end of assistance and support and those who are offering a hand. Families in need become stronger and those who are reaching out become stronger and even become more involved, often becoming agents of change.”