When is a budget cut that would disproportionately affect the nation’s poor justified? That’s the question being posed by the Obama administration’s proposed cut to the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), a program that dates back to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.
Facing an annual budget deficit still topping $1 trillion, the president has called for shared sacrifice. But one of the programs singled out for cuts – CSBG – is one that funds services in low income communities, communities that are still reeling from the economic slowdown.
The president signaled his intent to cut the program in his State of the Union address shortly after announcing his support for a five-year freeze on all domestic spending programs other than entitlements. “This freeze will require painful cuts,” he said. “Already, we’ve frozen the salaries of hardworking federal employees for the next two years. I’ve proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs.”
In its detailed budget, released February 14, the administration argued that CSBG’s track record was, at best, uncertain. It proposed cutting the program in half, converting the remaining $350 million into competitive grants, and holding grant-receiving nonprofits accountable for outcomes.
Unsurprisingly, this proposed cut has not gone over well with CSBG recipients and their supporters. Pablo Eisenberg, Sr. Fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, recently wrote in the Huntington Post:
Who are the White House staff who are advising the President on issues that matter to poor and working class people? Few seem sympathetic to grassroots constituencies or local communities that are struggling with life and death issues. Those advisers that have any familiarity with nonprofit organizations — and there are few — appear entirely devoted to social entrepreneurship organizations that do little or nothing to address serious social and economic justice problems. While real anti-poverty programs are scheduled for the cutting board, the Social Innovation Fund, an ineffectual entrepreneurship program, is targeted to receive an increase from $50 to $70 million. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why the administration has done so little to support nonprofit groups throughout the country other than the financial crumbs targeted to entrepreneurship projects.
Ouch! In its budget justifications sent to Congress, the administration wrote:“Many community action agencies deliver quality programs, but at a time when we must reduce the deficit, we cannot afford to provide guaranteed funding that is not targeted based on need and performance.”
The administration said it will work with Congress later this year to “inject competition into the program so that resources are targeted more effectively on high-performing, innovative organizations.” It said it will “revamp performance measures for CSBG based on a new competitive funding process within states.” We will keep an eye on it.