May 5, 2013

Cutbacks fall most heavily on the needy

The elderly, disabled and low-income Mainers are bearing a disproportionate share of the pain from federal budget cuts.

By Kevin Miller kmiller@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

WASHINGTON - After months of unheeded warnings, it took Congress just five days once flight delays began to pass a budget fix ensuring a full slate of air traffic controllers were keeping their eyes on the skies.

Susan Collins
click image to enlarge

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, is pushing a proposal that would give the White House more flexibility to work with Congress to approve targeted spending cuts.

2013 file photo/The Associated Press

And when the prospect of meat inspector furloughs threatened to disrupt the flow of chicken and steak to grocery stores, Capitol Hill promptly responded by moving money around to keep both the powerful meat lobby and the hungry public satiated.

But when it comes to programs for the less fortunate -- such as rental assistance, Meals on Wheels and Head Start -- Congress as a whole has shown little appetite for relieving the across-the-board "sequestration" budget cuts. And advocates for elderly, disabled and low-income Mainers say those populations are bearing a disproportionate share of the financial pain, largely out of view of the rest of the public.

"It is having a tremendous impact on people who need services," said Jessica Maurer, executive director of the Maine Association of Area Agencies on Aging, a nonprofit that represents the state's five regional Agencies on Aging, which expect to lose $330,000 in federal funding through Sept. 30.

"These are services that help to keep people -- the elderly and the disabled -- living in their homes and in their communities rather than living in institutions, which are much more expensive," Maurer said.

Congress and the White House developed the framework for "the sequester" two years ago in the belief that the mere threat of such indiscriminate cuts -- $1.2 trillion spread over 10 years -- would provide incentive to find a better path toward deficit reduction.

The gamble failed. But instead of a tidal wave of impacts, the effects have been trickling out.

Unlike the airline or meat-packing industries, advocates for the poor have made little headway persuading Congress to restore funding for programs that -- wrong or right -- often get dragged into political dogfights over social welfare policy.

"It's just a shame that people are not listening," said Mark Adelson, executive director of the Portland Housing Authority. "It's not that we're not talking. They just aren't listening."

WAITING LISTS GROW LONGER

In Portland, Adelson said his agency expects to issue up to 100 fewer new Section 8 housing vouchers this year after losing between $900,000 and $1 million in federal support. The Portland Housing Authority plans to manage the loss by issuing fewer vouchers to new clients rather than eliminating any current clients.

"The demand is huge and the affordable housing problem is just getting worse," said Adelson, who expects the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers in Portland, South Portland and Westbrook to hit 2,200 by the end of the month. "People will have to wait longer, and they are already waiting long enough. We have people waiting since 2009."

The Maine State Housing Authority, which administers rental assistance and housing programs for most communities in the state, lost $1.3 million and expects to issue 143 fewer Section 8 vouchers this year -- a 30 percent reduction in the number of vouchers typically issued to new recipients in any given year. MaineHousing has a waiting list of roughly 7,000 individuals and households, with an average wait of five years, according to spokeswoman Deborah Turcotte.

The Lewiston Housing Authority has not issued vouchers to anyone on its roughly 1,000-household waiting list since last September and probably won't for the rest of the year. At this point, executive director Jim Dowling expects the number of vouchers issued by his agency to shrink by 80 this year.

"We are watching the attrition levels closely and one of the critical questions is, given the economic times and the sort of benefits available to people, are we going to see the type of attrition rates that we have seen in the past?" Dowling said. "Or will people hold onto vouchers longer?"

(Continued on page 2)

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