Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Support the Troops in the War on Poverty!

I wrote yesterday that we have never fought a "war on poverty. " When the U.S. goes to war, it spends whatever is necessary to sustain the effort. It even spends more than is necessary, to boost the profits of the private companies that take part in fighting the war. Just look at the budget for the "global war on terror," and the way we have pumped money into Halliburton and Blackwater!

By contrast, the federal government barely funds the nation's anti-poverty efforts. It attempts to defund some of the major programs, and it carelessly lets the funding lapse when it's in the middle of a budget battle. Here's one story.

Community action agencies are the anti-poverty organizations in communities across America. There are about 2000 nationwide, including the Community Action Agency of Somerville (CAAS), where I have worked since 2003. At birth in the 1960's, these anti-poverty groups had their own specific appropriation in the federal budget.

By the Reagan administration, however, the very existence of these groups was threatened. Reagan successfully cutthe line item for them right out of the budget. They would have died on the operating table--except that our lobbyist deftly got Congress to restore funding in the form of a block grant. Money for anti-poverty work went from Washington to state capitals to disperse as they pleased. In Massachusetts, the state keeps 5% to pay its costs for administering the program and another 5% for special projects of its own choosing. The rest does flow to two dozen agencies across the state. Happy ending? Well, not quite.

Jump forward to 2005. Congress and the President cannot agree on a budget, and Congress passes a continuing resolution to keep the government running while they work out their differences. Nothing unusual about that: it happens all the time. What was unusual was the rules Congress set for spending during the continuing resolution. They said that any program that received federal funding could continue spending either at last year's level, or at the level proposed for next year by the House, or the level proposed by the Senate, whichever was least. And the House was proposing to cut the anti-poverty block grant by 50%!

The House (which was under Republican control at the time) knew that in the end, it was not going to succeed in halving the anti-poverty budget. It did succeed, however, from October 1, 2005 through right before Christmas. During that whole time, our agency had only half its normal block grant funds to spend. We left one Housing Advocate position unfilled, so Spanish-speaking people facing eviction in Somerville were out of luck. Everybody else worked four days a week. We don't pay people enough to live on 4/5 of their normal salary! The Portuguese-speaking Advocate was forced to find another job.

Even though funding was restored in the end, it took most of 2006 to hire new people, train them, get them working together as a team, and get back to the level of service we'd provided before October 2005.

Imagine the reaction if Congress decided, "Oh, we're going to cut funds for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan in half for the next few months." Contrast that with the resounding silence when Congress did just that to anti-poverty efforts. If we were serious about ending poverty, billions of dollars would not be going to Baghdad and Kabul and Kandahar. They'd be going to Boston and Kalamazoo and Kansas City instead.

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