Obama’s Onslaught on Community Action

Having left the Wall Street Journal to interview National Community Action Foundation’s Director David Bradley after President Obama’s State of the Union sneak attack on the country’s community action programs, the New York Times has gone a step further in its neglect of a serious social issue.  On Sunday Feb. 6 the newspaper published an editorial by White House Budget Director Jacob Lew, which called for a 50 per cent cut in financing for the Community Services Block Grant. Here was an unprecedented slash to a successful liberal program—one which has received scant review either by the Times or the President himself The famously noisy editorial staff offered no comment.

In his State of the Union President Obama said he has “proposed cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs.”  Since the President mentioned only this one program for proposed cuts, he could have at least forewarned Executive Director David Bradley who was seated in the gallery.  He didn’t.

When I interviewed Director Bradley he said, “I think this is a sea change, not a fiscal year change. What we are seeing is numerous agencies—good ones—all competing for the same federal dollars.  What this proposed cut has done to our network has sent us a chilling message.  It says that our leaders have seen the goodwill expressed towards our work in communities and the successful work of our agencies—especially in the downturn—but are telling us, ‘No thanks.’ That is a hard bitter message to swallow.”

Never mind that the Obama administration has failed to follow up on community action’s recent successes with weatherization and has not even appointed a member to head the program’s federal parent, the Health and Human Service Department (HHS).

Community action is 46 years old, a breathing and important creation of Great Society programs.  The organization impacts 9.3 million households and works with Head Start, workforce training, health, nutrition, and energy conservation.  In 2009, five billion dollars from the program went toward nationwide energy-saving weatherization projects that affecting 300,000 people.  Yet Obama’s declared intention to cut funds to this demonstrably successful organization—one that his own Cabinet members and website praises as a “top 10 performer”—a decision which goes further in jeopardizing this valuable program than any free marketeer ever has.

While George W. Bush hoped for cuts in community action, Congressional Democrats kept the dollars flowing.  Nixon kept his hands off the program while Reagan and Bush went after it, albeit unsuccessfully.  In the mid ‘90s, the Gingrich gang plotted to deny the Community Services Block Grant—community action’s fiscal oxygen—but Director Bradley, a protégé of the late Sargent Shriver, in a feat of impressive political jujitsu, used the opportunity to parade the successes of community action before Congress.

He won.  Not only did community action receive funding, it saw a $100 million increase from the Reaganaut authors of Contract with America!

It is important to watch Obama’s “move to the middle” (as many are calling his recent caving to Republican domestic demands) because it seems a retrograde move only a consensus-loving Democrat could make.  Daniel Patrtick Moynihan famously wrote to Nixon reminding the old Quaker criminal that it was “Tory men with liberal policies who have enlarged democracy.”  And if that truism is overblown the last twenty years have definitively proven the inverse:  Those on the liberal end of the respectable spectrumwith conservative policies do the worst damage.  In campaign ’92, candidate Clinton’s opportunistic criticism of George Bush Sr.’s brave threat to deny America’s loan guarantees to Israel had significant repercussions.  Running to the political right of Bush on this point, Clinton’s maneuver subsequently shackled Democrats to whatever reactionary, settler-friendly government Israel put up.  Again, but this time in the domestic realm, Clinton proposed the infamous welfare “reform.”  This crippling blow to the New Deal was a shameless swing to the right—a piece of legislation far more merciless to children living in poverty than anything conservatives had seriously proposed.

Obama’s recent toss (admittedly long overdue) of the “don’t ask don’t tell” repeal to his liberal base has given him cover for abandoning costly and disheartening economic fights with Republicans.  But slashing community action—not a perfect program but an important one—is not worth the pain it will cause to those busted by the reprehensible and unpunished actions of bankers.

Operating on a $700 million block grant with $1.5-2 billion in other programs (the stimulus funds were atypical) the program is a dollop in the context of a $14 trillion dollar debt and $15 trillion dollar economy.  Moreover, most of the households that will feel the cuts will be in rural and suburban areas where the working poor and slipping middle class families have been struck hardest.  And while, say, 200 non-for profits in New York are undoubtedly reeling in this economic climate, they offer undeniably more services and opportunities for aid than non-urban zones.  For example, in a state with declining population like Michigan where laid off workers in Jackson and Flint increasingly rely on their local community action agencies—many times not knowing that they are federally funded—to whom will they turn to for help?

“Travelling around economically hard-hit places I was struck by the trust families had for local community action agencies,” Bradley told me.  “I met families that never dreamed that they would have to rely on an agency for help.  They just never paid attention to the program up the road from their house.  Now they’re coming in saying, “Please, help us.”  Now time after time people say, ‘Without this assistance, I don’t know what our families would be doing.’”

While community action is small in comparison to other spending by the government, the work of its 1,000 agencies represents some successes of Obama’s slim and varied stimulus package and the importance of a net, however frayed and overstretched we keep it.  The intention, according to Budget Director Lew is to save $350 million.  But by singling out community action, Obama is losing an opportunity of equal value to the tax-cut fight/ “hostage crisis” he ran away from in December.  Obama is sawing at the very limb on which he rests–the cuts will hurt the working poor, punish successful government, illustrate how sadly out of touch he is with the workings of his own administration, and allow for further cuts to successful programs in the future.  If community action can be cut, what program can’t?  And if such successful programs (which are now competing for the same federal dollars) are gutted because of an economic deterioration brought about by our piggish financial class, the truth of who is in charge of this republic has been baldly revealed.

BRETT WARNKE is a journalist currently living in Rhode Island.  He is a recent graduate of the New School for Social Research and can be reached
at brettwarnke@gmail.com.