Community divestment

February 18, 2005

PRESIDENT BUSH'S proposal to cut a community development program popular with the nation's mayors is a bad idea at a time when many mayors are struggling to create jobs, provide their residents with affordable housing and revitalize their cities.

Cities and rural municipalities depend on Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds to pay for everything from community centers for the elderly to affordable housing developments for the working poor to adult literacy programs. The president's budget proposal to reduce federal funding for CDBG by $1.6 billion, nearly a third of the program's budget, is not a simple cutting, it's a major gutting.

The administration also plans to move the program from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to the Commerce Department, which would absorb community development efforts from other federal agencies, as well. Opponents of the cuts believe moving the block grants from an agency that mostly oversees programs for the poor to an agency more concerned with business interests would dilute their focus. That's a concern we share.

Though it is not the poorest of the states affected, Maryland's pockets of poverty are growing, its population is aging, and more low-income residents needing social services are moving in. Maintaining CDBG funding at its current level would help the state adjust to the changing economic needs of its residents in rural and urban communities.

Anti-poverty groups say the president's budget is being balanced at the expense of the poor, while administration representatives say they are trying to eliminate waste at a time of record deficits. The administration also believes the program is not helping as many poor people as it could, and has no clearly measurable goals. The 30-year program has had scattered problems in the past, but it enjoys bipartisan support in Congress and is closely monitored by HUD to prevent excessive waste or fraud. It also has an annual reporting process, and cities using the program's funds are subject to discretionary audits.

These measures, if done properly, should provide sufficient accountability. Nonetheless, the administration seems to be approaching the program with a machete rather than a scalpel. Mayor Martin O'Malley called the proposed cuts "sad, irresponsible and dishonest" and an attack on "the metropolitan core." He rightly argues that they would weaken cities already suffering from budget shortages due to rising homeland security costs. And the cuts would be especially hurtful to urban areas, where housing costs are rising nationwide and wages are not keeping up.

Republican administrations have attempted to cut the program in the past, only to be thwarted by Congress. America's cities would best be served if lawmakers continued the tradition and rejected the president's proposal.

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