Developing Communities Project Inc. is a South Side Chicago nonprofit that is church-affiliated and located in a traditionally poor neighborhood, so naturally its activities are primarily anti-poverty, in one way or another. Another thing about DCP is that Barack Obama worked there as a community organizer from 1985 to 1988, a job he’s suggested served as an inspiration and a template for his political career.
Like many similar organizations public and private, DCP relies on government grants for a good deal of its funding. In its 2008-2009 fiscal year, for example, the group reported total revenues of $486,994, of which $204,589 came from federal grants.
Last week, Obama unveiled his 2012 budget proposal. On the one hand, it increases the Pentagon and Homeland Security budgets by a combined $65.2 billion. On the other, it recommends deep cuts in major anti-poverty programs. Obama’s 2012 request cuts the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, an emergency fund used by local governments and nonprofits to help low-income families pay their heating and electric bills, by $2.53 billion, halving it from last year. It cuts $350 million, again half, from Community Services Block Grants, used for various anti-poverty initiatives. And it loses 7.5 percent, or $300 million, from Community Development Block Grants, a program administered by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development used mostly for low-income housing.
That Obama — the former community organizer, the alleged socialist — should propose these massive cuts may seem incongruous, even shocking, to casual political observers. It would be even more shocking, one might think, for Cynthia Croom, director of Nashville’s Metro Action Commission and the president of the Tennessee Association of Community Action.
“We’ve been anticipating for some time that there were going to be cuts in domestic spending. So if I were to say that I was shocked that anti-poverty programs would be on the list, that would be dishonest,” Croom said. “I can’t tell you we were surprised. I can tell you that we were definitely surprised at the extent of the cuts to these programs.”
The Metro Action Commission is city government’s community action agency, part of an anti-poverty program formed under President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Economic Opportunity Act, better known as the “Great Society” plan. Some agencies, like Metro’s, are public. Many more are private nonprofits. They’re the primary agencies responsible for distributing both CSBG and LIHEAP funds, as well as administering local Head Start programs.
Obama’s budget proposal promises to be a major blow to community action agency budgets. Of course, that will severely limit the amount of anti-poverty work they’re able to do.
The Metro Action Commission, for one, has a budget of nearly $24 million for this fiscal year. According to its budget report, more than $18 million of that will come from the federal government. Most of its budget — $14 million, said Croom — goes to Head Start programs, which only see a very small cut under Obama’s proposal. (Alternatively, Head Start, now funded at $8.2 billion, would be cut by more than $1 billion under a House GOP proposal). The remaining $10 million could be reduced by 60 percent or more.
Most of that money — $9 million this year — now goes to the commission’s LIHEAP program. Last year, with $7 million, the commission was able to forestall heat or electricity shutoffs for between 12,000 and 15,000 Davidson County residents. This year that number will be even bigger.
“We’re estimating based on the dollars we have available to us … the number we’re estimating we’ll be able to serve for this fiscal year is about 22,000,” Croom said.
But under Obama’s proposal, the program could all but vanish.
“I’m extremely concerned about the number of people who will lose services if these cuts are actually realized,” Croom said. “Can I give you an example? In the first quarter of the [Metro fiscal] year, just for some of our [LIHEAP] customers, we’ve spent over $2 million. Based on what we believe we would receive, if these cuts were realized, we would only get a total of $3 million. For the entire year.”
Likewise, the Community Services Block Grant adjustment — which not only cuts the program’s funding but changes how its funds are allocated, forcing states and municipalities to compete for the grants — would have a severe effect on the action commission’s adult education initiatives, which get the bulk of the agency’s $1.2 million in CSBG funding.
“CSBG is our entire GED program, which we do GED along with a college prep program, so that if one of our students passes the GED we help them go to a community college, or a four-year-college, or some kind of trade school programs,” Croom said. “Last year we had 103 graduates, but the total number served would probably be closer to 200. That includes people who are in the program, whether they’re studying for the GED or in the college prep program.”
Croom, as head of the Tennessee Association of Community Action, said the news from members of the 20-agency association is dire.
“We certainly know from conversations with our sister agencies that a number of them would have to close county offices. We are a one-county office. Many of the others serve multiple counties,” she said. “For many of the rural counties, losing those agencies’ offices would be a major blow.”
Croom said the TACA is in the process of preparing a presentation to Tennessee’s congressional representatives, hoping to demonstrate that hers and similar agencies produce real results and deserve funding, since obviously, the decision will ultimately come down to Congress.
“As President Obama has said, some cuts will have to be made,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper. “I am working to make sure that those cuts are sensible and protect the community. President Obama inherited a tough economy, and we’re not out of the woods yet.”
For some agencies, it could be even worse than a few closed satellite offices. The City Paper called the executive directors of every TACA member agency in the state to ask how the proposed cuts might affect their operations. (Note: The association’s 20 members include four public municipal agencies like the Metro Action Commission and six state-run human resource agencies. Thus they cannot be closed without changing state or city law. The 10 remaining agencies are private nonprofit groups.)
Of the 10 this newspaper reached by press time, all expected drastic service cuts, layoffs, reduced hours, or office closures.
At three, full closure is possible. In the case of the Highland Rim Economic Corporation, which serves Dickson, Houston, Humphreys and Stewart counties, the possibility of shuttering is more remote. But for the Anderson County Community Action Commission and the Bradley-Cleveland Community Services Agency, closure is likely. Those three relatively small agencies serve a combined population of nearly 10,000 low-income Tennesseans.
“I feel bad for our clients. Where are they going to go? The churches are strapped. Other agencies are strapped. And that’s going to turn back on the federal government,” said Susan T. Bowling, head of the Anderson CAC. “There’s going to be more people applying for benefits that maybe never have because we’ve been able to do our little bit to help them along.”
Asked whether her clients might be able to turn to, say, the Knoxville-Knox County CAC, a public agency near Anderson County, Bowling said probably not. Barbara Kelly, head of the Knoxville agency, confirmed that.
Harry Johnson, assistant director at Bradley-Cleveland, said one of his biggest concerns, should the agency close, are the hundreds of elderly clients it serves, many of whom have limited mobility and would not be able to seek help from the next agency over, “if the next agency over is even open,” he said.
“Services to senior citizens, those will be gone for Bradley County,” he said. “We deliver meals to 132 seniors who are homebound every day. Those meals help keep them out of nursing homes and other places like that.”
The agency also operates two senior centers that serve meals to hundreds of clients per day.
“I served as director of this agency for 33 years,” Johnson said. “I haven’t ever seen anything quite this bad. I served as the president of TACA a couple of times. And I’ll tell you, several of the smaller agencies are at the very verge of closing their doors. And you know what that’s going to mean for a lot of poor people.”