It is tempting to put all the blame on Ronald Reagan, David Stockman, and supply-side economics for the drastic cuts in public programs. But they are more a symptom than a cause.
All forms of human services have been under attack for two major reasons: increased bureaucratization and the cost of human labor. While both factors led to Reaganomics, this year's budget cuts will only make matters worse.
Consider first bureaucracy. Reagan's instinctive dislike for large-scale impersonal organization of human services is far more reasonable than his critics admit. The problem is that bureaucratization has taken over health and welfare not only in Washington, but in states and localities as well. Private charity is now dominated by national organizations using computerized mailings. Even at the local level, many agencies dare not exercise initiative for fear of conflicting with United Way regulations.
The second cause undermining human services is the cost of labor. While inflation has ravaged the dollar, its effects on health and welfare have been particularly pronounced. Today, you need $3.56 to buy consumer durables that cost $1 in 1929. For services, however, the comparable figure is $5.71. Where labor is the principal factor of costs, as in human services, inflation has thus grown at 1.6 times the rate of durable goods like refrigerators and cars.
Since 1961, while a pound of ground meat has gone from 79 cents to $1.79, a day in the local hospital has increased in cost almost 9 times (from $49 to $439 ). It now costs more than $35,000 a year for a place at New Hampshire's Youth Development Center. And when it can be said that the state reformatory is more expensive than Harvard, outcry over the cost of publicly funded human services is hardly surprising.
Reaganomics doesn't touch the deep causes of the increased cost of human services. While Reagan seeks to reduce the bureaucratization in Washington, equally important ravages have occurred at the state level and in the private sector. Hence cutting back the federal budget for health and welfare without finding a viable alternative could well have devastating effects.
What can be done?
Voters from coast to coast have rebelled against tax-supported human services. But the budget axe won't make legitimate needs go away. Archaic as it may sound, there is much to be said for a return to local charity as a major means of funding health, welfare, and human services.
Speaking to the National Alliance of Business recently, the President reiterated that ''this administration seeks to elevate voluntary action and private initiative to the recognition they deserve.'' Many liberals scoff. But perhaps frustrated supporters of human services should give this suggestion serious consideration.
As an example, consider the problem of teen-agers in trouble. Reform schools like New Hampshire's Youth Development Center are clearly necessary as a last resort, but budget cuts have dramatically increased the cost per inmate. State social workers and school guidance counselors are typically overworked and often unable to offer extensive assistance before difficulties of adjustment become criminal cases. In our local area, however, a private agency has demonstrated that small charitable organizations can make a difference.
The example is worth describing. Upper Valley Youth Services was founded in 1978. With a total staff of nine and an annual budget of $250,000, UVYS recruits foster families for teen-agers who cannot continue to live with their parents, sponsors a family group home, and provides counseling to prevent placement if possible. It costs half as much to place a child in the agency's foster homes as in a public institution, not counting the benefits of other counseling and support services provided by UVYS.
Funding is catch-as-catch-can. Started with Law Enforcement Assistance Administration seed money from Washington, the agency has negotiated separate contracts with New Hampshire and Vermont to reimburse it partially for services to teen-agers in placement. The local United Way provides about 5 percent of the budget, and as much as $19,000 has been added by an imaginative ''Christmas in October'' fund-raiser. But even with energetic local effort, the agency has to date received about 70 percent of its budget from federal or state governments.
Here is an example of high-quality social service with low overhead. State welfare agencies, judges, and other professionals have relied on UVYS for assistance in placing hard-to-handle teen-agers. Time and energy must be devoted to contacts with many different welfare offices, judicial systems, and school administrators on both sides of the Connecticut River. Yet troubled youths are provided a supportive environment in local placement at much less than the cost of a state-run institution.
Local organizations like UVYS can make a real difference on the human level with a minimum of bureaucracy. They provide room for initiative yet remain close to community needs and attitudes. And, alas, they are going out of business.
Although successful to date, UVYS only has operating funds through February 1982. As government money has dried up, alternative sources must be found. So far, extensive efforts by the board, staff, and concerned citizens have not been successful. Nor can such a small organization hope to compete with nationally known charities with their mass mailings and prestigious letterheads.
In a fundamental sense, this case illustrates a test of Reagan's policies that is every bit as critical as Wall Street's response to economic uncertainty. If local service agencies like UVYS go under, nothing will compensate for the cuts in publicly funded programs.
The package of tax cuts and reduced budgets was intended to stimulate business investment. But unless it also generates radically increased contributions to local human service agencies, Reaganomics will produce both individual misery and nasty political backlash. In the long run, failure to meet genuine human needs will lead to demands for a more bureaucratic and all-encompassing welfare state than the US has ever known.