Poor can't bear burden of cuts

July 15, 2005|By Richard Doran

PRESIDENT BUSH has proposed "zeroing out" the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) program in the next budget, which would mean no federal money for about 1,100 community action agencies that serve millions of low-income people in 96 percent of the counties throughout our wealthy nation.

This fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, the agencies received $636 million. Our Republican and Democratic allies in Congress, who understand our value to their communities, are trying to hold the line at $600 million.

Ninety-six percent of the counties in the United States represents a significant number of people living in poverty. Poverty, as defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, means a family of four living on less than $19,000 a year. Census numbers show that poverty in the United States has risen every year since 2000, during both the recently ended economic downturn and the current slow recovery (for some).

And Mr. Bush wants to not just cut the funding of the organizations that form the backbone of the safety net serving these people every day, he wants the funding to go to zero.

Nationally, the network of community action agencies served more than 11 million people in fiscal year 2003. Maryland's 17 agencies assisted about 164,000 people. In Baltimore County, the Community Assistance Network (CAN), my organization, provided more than 40,000 instances of service to over 14,000 families.

Each agency offers its own variety of programs. They run food pantries and homeless shelters, help with medical expenses, utility bills, evictions and foreclosures, offer high school equivalency diplomas and skills training and find people jobs, operate child care and after-school programs, weatherize homes, develop affordable housing and much more.

Agencies that are intended to assist poor people are struggling to make ends meet at the time that our clients need us most. While the middle and upper classes in America have at least reasonable opportunities to make a better life for themselves and their children, low-income people find ever more barriers in their path.

CAN is in the third straight year of budget cuts by the federal, state and local governments, which puts us in the vast majority of similar organizations. Private donors make it possible for us to continue offering programs that help our clients to bridge the barriers.

Our clients, though, are working two and three jobs and still praying they won't get sick because they have no health insurance and can't afford to save for the future. Our seniors feel every penny of the jumps in gas prices, prescriptions, food and utilities because their incomes are fixed and don't rise just because their expenses do. Our children go to underfunded schools and share textbooks they cannot take home to study.

Congress did a good job with welfare reform in 1996. Then in the last several years, while the economy ebbed and private donations shrank, they chose the easy options to balance the budget. The federal and state governments significantly cut funds for the "purchase of care" vouchers moms needed to help pay for child care while they went back to work. They cut the funds for training programs and scholarships people can use to better their education and skills.

Cutting funding for agencies that assist low-income families plus cutting funding for programs that directly benefit the most vulnerable among us equals a better life for who among us?

And what if Mr. Bush actually achieved that big, fat zero?

Richard Doran is executive director of Community Assistance Network, a nonprofit community agency that serves low-income Baltimore County residents.

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