PORTLAND — The U.S. House and Senate have passed a sixth stopgap spending measure to keep the federal government running through April 8 as Congress recommits to packaging a budget that will fund the government through the remainder of the fiscal year.

What will our community look like on April 9? When the government has successfully reached its stated goal of cutting about $61 billion from the federal budget for this year, how will our civic priorities and obligations be reflected?

Starting with President Obama in his January State of the Union Speech, public servants have pledged to reduce the deficit, but not by making undue cuts to programs serving poor people in local communities.

The president clearly stated his approach to fiscal restraint, “ and 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. And let’s make sure that what we’re cutting is really excess weight.”

Are funds for heating programs through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) for poor people – where 46 percent are elderly, 25 percent are disabled and the average wage is $10 an hour – excess weight? Or is money to weatherize homes to reduce the need for heating assistance, aid in conservation and create private-sector jobs in the process not serving a valuable triple purpose?

Is it excess weight to provide 389 Maine children born into poverty a jump-start on education through Early Headstart/Headstart programs that provide high-quality preschool education and care and that enable parents to stay in the work force? Currently, only 30 percent of income-eligible children can attend because of existing funding constraints.

Is our “Senior Corps” excess weight? In 2010, 2,400 engaged seniors in Maine contributed 550,000 hours – or $11.4 million in time (estimated by the Independent Sector) – to help 2,050 peers with transportation, meal preparation, companionship and medication assistance and to offer respite to 166 family care givers. Foster grandparents offered 140,000 hours to mentor children.

Are Community Services Block Grants – the core of anti-poverty program funding for 45 years – excess weight?

Among other uses, last year these funds helped prevent 450 people, including 250 children, from becoming homeless in Cumberland County; and served 700 low-income people in the most densely populated and troubled square mile in Maine through Portland’s Parkside Neighborhood Center, by offering supervised after-school programs, community meals, adult education and financial literacy.

The city, other nonprofits and churches depend on Parkside to reach the people they want to serve. Goal No. 1 of community action agencies is to help low-income people become more self sufficient.

Yet, for fiscal year 2012, the president has proposed cutting Community Service Block Grant funding by half – allocating half the funding to a new competitive process. Even that plan offers time for a community to prepare to do things differently and to be competitive for the funding. Eliminating funds overnight creates community chaos.

So, how do we begin to cut meaningfully and for the long term without doing so on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens? The House Appropriations Committee has made progress on identifying sensible cuts, including:

Save America’s Treasures, originally a two-year National Park Service grant program that allocates $14.8 million to commemorate the year 2000 millennium. Excess weight 11 years later?

The Commerce Department’s Emergency Steel Loans, an unspent allocation of $48 million for the Emergency Steel, Oil, and Gas Guaranteed Loan Program Account.

Only three loans have ever been made under this program, and no new loans have been made since 2003. Is it excess weight to allocate funds for loan programs that have not seen an application for eight years? This is just the tip of the iceberg in targeting federal programs that are idle, obsolete and underused yet continue to be funded. In other words – excess weight.

There is no question that social service agencies that receive federal funding to serve low-income families and children are obliged to be more efficient, collaborative and creative in the ways we meet these needs.

Having a few months to plan how to meet funding challenges ensures that the needs of the most vulnerable can continue to be met at some level.

Yanking federal funds in a two-week window ensures only that more people will wake up April 9 with no child care, no heating support, no shelter assistance, no guidance from unanswered help lines, no path to self-sufficiency and no hope.

 

– Special to The Press Herald