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Merry Christmas for Whom? 

by William Stimson & r & The philosopher William James warned against empty sentiment. It delivers good feelings, but they are illusory and selfish. His example was the Russian duchess who wept at a tragic opera scene while outside her coachman slowly froze to death.

American society is learning to compartmentalize like that. It's not that people don't care. When I called around to local charities and social agencies and asked how things were going this Christmas, they unfailingly praised the generosity of Spokane people. If people are aware of a need, their natural impulse is to deliver a sack of food or take a Christmas wish from the Giving Tree and fulfill it.

And yet the same social agencies say the poor are worse off than they have been in recent memory. There are lots of people in this city who are cold, hungry and otherwise miserable, and there's little hope of lending aid. Why?

The real decisions about how the poor would fare this winter were made years ago, when euphemistically called "tax cuts" and "tax reform" started snatching away the small amenities that made life a little more tolerable for the poor.

In this state, Tim Eyman asked citizens in 1999: Would you rather pay $300 for a car license or $30? The initiative passed overwhelmingly, and there weren't many questions about the consequences. Poor people are dealing with those now.

Two years later, Eyman's Initiative 747 limited state and local property tax increases to 1 percent per year, less than the inflation rate. That meant a slow strangulation of local governments, and of course services to the poor are the first to go. The city of Spokane has cut $300,000 out of its social services budget over the past three years.

It does advocates little good to argue the depth of the needs of the poor or the merits of a program. For example, Olympia is about to eliminate Spokane's most successful program for dealing with the vilest of all problems, child abuse. The Partners With Families and Children Program, started by Sacred Heart and Deaconess hospitals in a desperate effort to handle a problem they were seeing, too late, in their emergency rooms, has demonstrated its effectiveness in academic studies. It has been defended by virtually everyone in the city knowing anything about the problem, from the chief of police to physicians' organizations to all the area's universities. No one in Olympia is listening; cutting costs is the only virtue of modern government.

Many of the kids who suffer abuse will show up at the Volunteers of American Crosswalk program for counseling. Unfortunately, the attention they get will be limited by the fact that Crosswalk just lost a $200,000 grant and four counselors -- another victim of federal tax cuts.

The same is true of programs for the mentally ill. They are being deprived of their medicines, counseling and, in some cases, a place to live -- just as quickly as Medicaid can rewrite its rules.

Marianne DeMarco, coordinator of the Northeast SNAP office in the Northeast Community Center, has never seen things so bad in her 25 years in the business. The increase of about 25 percent in the cost for fuel has already exhausted the ability of many people to order a minimum refill for their heating oil tanks. Some people are so desperate for a little heat they go to a service station and buy five or 10 gallons of diesel fuel to get their furnaces started again. It costs more and it doesn't last long, but when you're cold -- as those who can remember Ice Storm can attest -- you become desperate.

DeMarco's program has less money this year to deal with a much greater demand. Even those who get help get only a one-time fill of 100 gallons of fuel. That usually lasts no more than a month. When that's gone, "out come the electric heaters" until Avista shuts off their electricity. Then people move in with friends or relatives. Or, commonly, parents send children to stay with family or friends and elect to stay in the cold houses themselves, DeMarco says.

Things fall apart pretty quickly when the heat goes off. For one thing, pipes freeze. For most people on fixed incomes, to call a plumber would take a major portion of their monthly living costs. There is a program, also run by SNAP, that fixes broken pipes for eligible callers, but that has been cut by 40 percent.

But you wouldn't know any of this unless you were part of the small community that deals with poverty in Spokane.

Cause and effect are safely compartmentalized. A wealthy Spokane citizen can guiltlessly spend his federal tax savings downtown, get in his $40,000 Lexus with its $30 license plate, then drive home to his property-tax protected house, totally unaware that some of the homes he is passing have no heat.

Helping Hands & r & All agencies emphasize that donations are as welcome after Christmas as they are before. A few of the agencies doing widespread work among the poor are:

Spokane Neighborhood Action Program & r & 2116 E. First Ave. * 456-7111

Volunteers of America & r & 525 W. Second Ave. * 624-2378

Lutheran Community Services & r & 7 S. Howard St. * 747-8224

Catholic Charities of Spokane & r & 1023 W. Riverside Ave. * 358-4250

Union Gospel Mission & r & P.O. Box 4066 * 535-8510

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