Community Action Groups Respond to State of the Union Address

The President’s State of the Union address is the opposite of extemporaneous. The speech is written, revised, rehearsed, and teleprompted.  Everything in the SOTU, from stirring Presidential calls to action to embarrassing flops, is intentional, not adlibbed. 

So it was no mistake when President Barack Obama spoke about his plan to eviscerate the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) program, the federal funding mainstay of the anti-poverty programs carried out by the nation’s 1,100 community action agencies.  It wasn’t a slip of the tongue.  The President had made community action agencies the sacrificial lamb on the altar of his Republican opposition’s commitment to cut the federal budget and slow the growth of the federal deficit.

 

Community action agencies and their state and national associations received this like a back alley mugging; they were caught entirely by surprise.  Where had this come from?  Why did the President, a former Chicago community organizer, pick on anti-poverty programs rather than any of the thousands of other pieces of the federal budget to demonstrate his new budget-cutting mettle?  His new chief of staff, Bill Daley, clarified the SOTU message, explaining that the President’s plan is to cut CSBG by half and make the remaining funds available to any applicant, not just community action agencies. 

The plan reflected a proposal made by Independent Sector in 2009 to the Obama Administration suggesting that CSBG and some other funds be lumped together into a new fund to be administered by an independent intermediary regrantmaking organization bypassing the states and territories that now by law receive CSBG allotments and generally make them available through community action agencies and Indian tribes. 

It was an interesting proposal, in that IS, at least at that time, appeared to have no community action association members or representation from the national trade associations of CAAs.  IS essentially eyed the resources largely controlled by community action agencies as a potential resource for other nonprofits, even if doing that would gut the programs of many community action agencies.

How important is CSBG?  The FY2010 appropriation was roughly $900 million; a one-time billion was added to CSBG through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  It is the mainstay of this nation’s unfortunately insufficient and dwindling commitment to the war on poverty, a national initiative that gave birth to many nonprofits – community development corporations, community health centers, and multi-service centers – not just CAAs.

In the wake of the president’s address, Nonprofit Quarterly invited statements from various community action agency associations to explain what the President’s new plan means to them and their members.  We are publishing three responses here and hope that individual community action agencies will add their comments to embellish the stories below. 

There’s a reason for bringing the CAAs to this venue. Although almost all community action agencies are nonprofits – all CAAs relate to nonprofits in their communities through partnerships and joint programs and interagency referrals – many CAAs frequently define themselves by the array of programs (and federal appropriations) that they run, not by their roles and functions as mainstays of the nonprofit sector’s historic commitment to social and economic equity.  There is a hint of insularity in the community action movement that induces other nonprofits to make a grab for their money without much or any compunction. 

It’s probably high time for community action agencies to speak to the nonprofit sector at large, to remind the national nonprofit infrastructure about what community action agencies deliver to the nation’s poorest communities and families through CSBG funds, and to re-connect community action agencies to their historic foothold as the dedicated community-based anti-poverty wing of the U.S. nonprofit sector.  Here are three statements offered to Nonprofit Quarterly that we share with the readers of the Cohen Report that make the connections explicit and compelling.

 

From Denise Harlow, CEO, New York State Community Action Association

Did I hear the President of the United States correctly in his State of the Union? “So tonight, I am proposing that starting this year, we freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years. This would reduce the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade . . . This freeze will require painful cuts . . .  I’ve proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs . . . I’m willing to eliminate whatever we can honestly afford to do without. But let’s make sure that we’re not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.”

I’m confused. Community Action Programs (CAPs) serve our most vulnerable citizens and work every day in communities to give hope and opportunity to those that society has failed. In New York, we have a network of 52 CAPs, 50 of which are nonprofit, community-based organizations.  In addition New York City invests in 200 nonprofits to serve the most vulnerable in the five boroughs.  Last year 750,000 New Yorkers got help from CAPs in New York State in urban, suburban and rural communities.

The president’s proposal would drastically cut Community Services Block Grants, money that funds many Community Action Programs.

CAPs are about maximum feasible participation. Decisions on what to fund through CSBG are made at the local level, not by a “funding source” from above. Why is the administration losing faith in communities to make their own decisions about the needs in their own communities?  Why praise Sargent Shriver for his life’s work on Saturday and then propose dismantling the network he founded to help families domestically on Tuesday?

CSBG is the only funding source that allows localities to address new needs quickly because they can shift priorities and CSBG funding quickly.  For instance, Community Action Agencies were engaged in foreclosure prevention before the government even recognized a recession was upon us.   Stimulus funds needed to be infused into low-income communities quickly and nimble CAPs around the U.S. responded quickly and used stimulus funds to create jobs, prevent homelessness, open new career paths, and provide emergency services.   CAPs quickly adapted to new reporting requirements and were held accountable through state and federal oversight. 

CAPs do their work in partnership with thousands of nonprofits, community groups, school districts, funders, and volunteers every year.  In New York State, 3.5 million volunteer hours were invested in Community Action last year; more than 1,700 partnerships were facilitated with nonprofits (more than 600 of which were with faith-based organizations); products and services were purchased by CAPs from local businesses from Buffalo to Plattsburgh to Montauk. 

Our neighbors believe in us enough to give their most valuable asset, time; our nonprofit and faith-based partners entrust us with their clients and resources; and our local businesses see us as good customers. So why is the President pulling his support? 

President Johnson’s War on Poverty is won every day in Community Action Programs across this country.  When a 23-year-old mother of two receives her Certified Nursing Assistant Certificate, when a single dad secures a used car that he can use to get to work, when parents access overnight child care and can get more hours at work, when a family finds they can access food stamps to stretch their family budget just a bit further, and when working parents can get their taxes done for free and access all the tax credits for which they are eligible, the War on Poverty is won.  Let’s hope that President Obama will change course and live up to Johnson’s Legacy.

For more information visit theNew York State Community Action Association website.

 

From Lana Ross, executive director, Iowa Community Action Association

After grieving the loss of Sargent Shriver two weeks ago, my grief came back full force when, during the State of the Union address, President Obama said “I’ve proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs”. This statement would seem to end the dream and the legacy, of Sargent Shriver; just days after our nation celebrated his long and productive life, within hours of his being laid to rest.

Sargent Shriver led this country’s effort to end poverty.  He believed that organizing the local community to work to alleviate poverty was the best approach and based upon that belief he designed Community Action; a network of more than a thousand local agencies that each day are, as their mission states, “helping people, changing lives.” Shriver saw and believed in the unending potential of low-income children and families and at the same time, grasped the concept that by organizing local communities to tackle these issues we help communities to see their potential. This, then, is how the country fulfills the promise of helping all people see and realize their potential and abilities.

Today, Iowa has 18 local community action agencies that provide a range of programs and services that bring opportunity and hope to children, families and communities. Every one of these agencies is unique; molded and shaped over four and a half decades to reach for Shriver’s vision by responding to the individual needs and opportunities inherent in the communities they serve.  And their work would be reduced and harmed by the proposed cut in Community Services Block Grants that the president proposed in his State of the Union address. 

One example of the work of these agencies is the Start Sooner, Stay Longer, Keep Learning Project in Marshalltown, Iowa.  CSBG funding provided the catalyst for a community to move from resignation regarding poverty and poor academic outcomes to a revitalization of hope (there’s that word, again) and, subsequently, action. 

The program targeted an elementary school that had an 82 percent free and reduced lunch rate and was the fifth poorest school in the state. The staff and volunteers of the community action agency knocked on every door in the neighborhood – more than a thousand – and found every child they could under the age of five.  Every parent was told about the early childhood opportunities in the community.

Across all sectors of the community – individuals, parents, businesses, churches, schools and non-profits – have joined this effort and have become committed to all children in the neighborhood receiving a top  notch education and all schools and families receiving the support they need to make that happen.  Preschool classrooms are now in the elementary building and pre-K enrollment is up.  Scores of parents and their children attend family resource center nights.  Parents of children under the age of three participate in reading circles and receive books and educational materials from the “Little Ones Need Words” campaign.  Parent leadership programs have begun in the neighborhood.  New resources from the community are being made available to the project. And test scores are beginning to move in the direction all had hoped they would. 

This transformation from resignation to action was made possible because of CSBG and because there was an agency with a 45-plus-year history in the community that could gain trust, facilitate growing community knowledge and provide structures for action. That doesn’t happen overnight. These antipoverty efforts are marathons, not sprints.

Another example of how CSBG funds can bring hope and opportunity can be seen in this testimonial from Mayor Leigh A. Rekow, of Postville, Iowa: “Northeast Iowa Community Action Corporation’s Family Service worker was instrumental in assisting our Agri-Processors work force following the raid of May 2008.  Many workers were left in our City without an income.  With the funding from the CSBG program through the NEICAC, Letha [the Family Service worker] worked diligently to provide much needed assistance for helping to pay their utility bills.  She and the City of Postville worked together many times to assist those unable to pay their utility bills.  She was a compassionate and caring person while working many hours with people who were scared and struggling.”  This is the norm for Community Action Programs, and we are proud of that our agencies deliver throughout Iowa. 
The challenges facing us now require bold steps from Congress. One of those steps is choosing to continue to invest in the Community Service Block Grant to help secure the long term health of our families and our communities.  Community action agencies have worked for decades at the local level to provide economic and social opportunities to our community’s most vulnerable and to alleviate the conditions of poverty. These community-based efforts are needed now more than ever.  

For more information visit theIowa Community Action Association website.

 

From Gretchen Knowlton, Special Assistant to the Executive Director, National Association for State Community Services Programs

When is an economic recovery not really a recovery at all? It’s when the poorest Americans, those disproportionately affected by the Great Recession, don’t, well, recover. In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama pledged not to make spending cuts “on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.” But in singling out community action programs as a sacrificial lamb for the new House of Representatives, he’s about to do just that.

While there’s never a good time to balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens, it’s hard to think of a worse time. State budgets are a mess, and aren’t going to buck up anytime soon. The rising stock market, increasing consumer confidence, and an improving federal revenue picture haven’t corresponded to a recovery of the states’ fiscal health. The ARRA money that plugged the holes is gone, and the boats are taking on water again.

But just what are community action programs? You could work for years in this business and still not know. Community action programs are a network of over a thousand local agencies that offer a full spectrum of wraparound services to help vulnerable Americans access employment, education, and housing.

On the chopping block is the Community Services Block Grant network, which funds these programs to the tune of $700 million annually. The administration proposes to cut that number in half. This would seem counter-productive because the Block Grant system is the only federal program exclusively focused on reducing poverty. It’s a commonsense and effective strategy that uses a powerful mix of federal, state, and local resources to address the problems that lead to systemic poverty. While a lot of programs focus on disparate issues, CSBG is effective because it allows states to strategically target the full range of root causes on a local level. In FY 2009, with some extra juice from ARRA funds, CSBG helped 20.7 million Americans seize economic opportunities.

So why would the Obama administration propose cuts to a proven program that’s actually working? The program isn’t new, it’s not sexy, and its very comprehensiveness makes it hard to define handily in three sentences or fewer. Also, it’s not competitive. States have to fork over funds to some of the same agencies every year with limited tools to enforce accountability. That’s a concern, but not an unmanageable one. Perhaps more importantly, unlike some of the flashier programs the administration loves, the CSBG network doesn’t generate terabytes of data about itself every day to justify its own existence.

But while the numbers on community action programs might not be as granular as we’d like to see, a few broad brushstrokes still paint a compelling picture, and it’s not pretty. Right off the bat, for example, the proposed cut will impact and disrupt an $11.9 billion CSBG network (pdf). This is good for business? Then there are the 681,000 people who obtained stable employment over the last five years with the help of community action agencies. Don’t count on a similar number over the next five years.


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A ripple effect will spread to other government programs, and ultimately to other non-profits. The beauty of the state-administered CSBG network is that it provides a broad strategic framework and creates a seamless, efficient, and effective delivery system for what would otherwise be a disparate collection of isolated State and Federal programs. So cuts in community action programs mean reduced capacity for other State and Federal programs – most notably, the Weatherization Assistance Program, which works to improve the energy efficiency of low-income homes using the most advanced technologies in the housing industry.

The Community Action network has such expansive reach that the aftershocks from any cut in CSBG community action programs will be felt by nonprofits across the nation. Other nonprofits will experience increased demand when community action programs are forced to eliminate services, or perhaps close their doors.

Nearly 160,000 nonprofits, businesses, schools, and other community organizations are touched by Community Action every day. In some communities, Community Action is the only place for vulnerable Americans to turn. These are troubling scenarios, at a time when nonprofits across the country are already stretched to their limits due to increased need for services, state budget cuts, and reduced fundraising brought on by the financial crisis.

For additional information on NASCSP please contact: Jeannie Chaffin, [email protected], 202.624.7738. And visit their website.