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Op/Ed: Cutting Community Services Block Grants is wrong

Submitted by Western Maine Community Action

“For every human problem there is a solution”—wrote the journalist H.L. Mencken almost 100 years ago—“neat, plausible, and wrong.”

We have watched in disbelief as President Obama put Community Action programs on the chopping block, targeting Community Services Block Grants (CSBG) and slashing heating assistance in his budget proposal. The House of Representatives has cut even more deeply into the services we provide.

While the Senate has yet to weigh in on the cuts it will endorse, the drumbeat of “cut the budget, cut the deficit” is all we hear. It’s neat, it’s plausible, and it’s wrong. This is not a tenable solution to the problems our country faces. In a democracy we look to our elected officials to set priorities so that problems may be solved or ameliorated.

At Western Maine Community Action (WMCA), the problem is poverty. You know it well: you’ve seen its effects on your neighbor who lost his job, your friend with a chronic disability, the young working mother across the street or perhaps an elderly parent struggling to stay in her home.

You’ve seen the deteriorating housing stock in our communities, the rising price of heating oil, young people unable to find work as local jobs vanish.

Cutting Community Action will not reduce the deficit or lower taxes. Instead the social costs to states and municipalities, to individuals and families will rise. What will happen if WMCA and similar agencies stop weatherizing homes of low-income families, stop rapid-response programs to retraining and rehiring workers laid off because of industry closures, stop providing access to reproductive health care for low-income women, stop administering heating assistance funds?

What if they stop food banks and community gardens, stop teaching budget management, stop preventing homelessness or providing access to low-interest funding for home improvement? Or stop nutritional services to daycare providers and support services for the elderly poor?

The state will not pick up the slack. Municipalities are less able than ever to provide local services, much less general assistance. Unemployment is high, earned income is low and more people than ever depend on our services. The need for support is temporary for many of our customers, but it is real. Cutting Community Action programs—CSBG, LIHEAP, WIC, Head Start, weatherization and energy conservation, family planning and food pantries, retraining for displaced workers, support for the elderly—will cause the greatest burden of sacrifice to fall on those least able to withstand it.

Community Action has a proven track record for delivering services to those most in need, as well as those newly affected by the recession. In particular, flexible CSBG funds have been used to develop new partnerships and initiatives to meet the challenges caused by the recession.

In Androscoggin, Franklin and Oxford Counties, WMCA has used CSBG funding to improve access to our services. It has leveraged a large redevelopment grant for low-income housing and another one for weatherization services, preventing homelessness and wasteful energy use. It has allowed us to create warming centers, food pantries, and employment fairs in our communities, spaces for socialization and hope.

CSBG funds maintained the family planning program and one of the rural Career Centers through a period of financial instability, preserving those services for clients throughout the tri-county area.

Our governing bodies seem to be indifferent when it comes to the chronically poor and newly economically disadvantaged. This stance is unworthy of the most powerful and wealthiest nation in the world. It is unworthy of our state with its proud tradition of mutual assistance in hard times.

The budget deficit can be brought down with a broad vision and a sense of social justice, asking those who have benefited the most from current governmental policies to give back in full measure according to what they have received.

The national debt can be retired by a robust economic recovery, as happened in the 1990s. Community Action will help keep people afloat until those tides rise.

Ellen Grunblatt, WMCA Board President

Celeste Branham, vice-president

Gregory Gould, treasurer

Randall Berry, chairman, Public Policy Committee

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