News & Events

The Human Cost of Budget Cutting

The Human Cost of Budget Cutting


Published: February 19, 2011

John Drew believes, quaintly, that we are our brother’s keeper.

Damon Winter/The New York Times, Bob Herbert

President Obama does not seem to believe this quite as strongly. And, of course, many of the Republicans in Congress do not believe it at all.

Mr. Drew is the president of Boston’s antipoverty agency, called Action for Boston Community Development, which everyone calls ABCD. In today’s environment, people who work with the poor can be forgiven if they feel like hunted criminals. Government officials at all levels are homing in on them and disrupting their efforts, sometimes for legitimate budget reasons, sometimes not.

The results are often heartbreaking.

Community action agencies like ABCD are not generally well known but they serve as a lifeline, all across the country, to poor individuals and families who desperately need the assistance provided by food pantries, homeless shelters, workers who visit the homebound elderly, and so forth. They offer summer jobs for young people and try to ward off the eviction of the jobless and their dependents.

More than 20 million people receive some kind of assistance from community action agencies over the course of a year. This winter an elderly man in Boston was found during a routine visit to be suffering in his home from frostbite of the hands and feet. The visit most likely saved his life.

We should keep in mind the current extent of economic suffering in the U.S. as we consider President Obama’s misguided plan to impose a crippling 50 percent reduction in the community service block grants that serve as the crucial foundation for community action agencies. The cuts will undoubtedly doom many of the programs. (The Republicans in the House would eliminate the block grants entirely.)

It’s a measure of where we are as a country that this has not been a bigger news story.

“I’ve been like 40 years on the front lines here and never saw anything quite like what we’re going through now,” said Mr. Drew. “I go back to when President Nixon tried to put us out of business.

Reagan tried to push us off the table. They didn’t succeed. Quite frankly, I didn’t expect that at this stage of the game we’d be facing these kinds of cuts from a President Obama. And the Republicans in the House — well, they’re just nihilistic. I don’t know where the moral center of the universe is anymore.”

Community action agencies were established decades ago to undergird the fight against poverty throughout the U.S., in big cities, small towns, rural areas — wherever there were people in trouble. It’s the only comprehensive antipoverty effort in the country, and the need for them has only grown in the current long and terrible economic climate.

President Obama’s proposal to cut the approximately $700 million grant by 50 percent is an initiative with no upside. The $350 million reduction is meaningless in terms of the federal budget deficits, but it is enough to wreck many of these fine programs and hurt an awful lot of people, including children and the elderly.

It seemed like just a moment ago that these programs were held in high esteem by the president, a former community organizer himself. Community action agencies received $5 billion in stimulus funds to train people to weatherize homes. They ended up being ranked eighth out of 200 federal programs that got stimulus money in terms of the number of jobs created.

Now, suddenly, these agencies are dispensable.

The block grant money from the federal government is highly leveraged. The agencies secure additional public and private funds that enable them to support a wide network of programs that offer an astonishing array of important services. These include Head Start, job training and child care programs, legal services, affordable housing for the elderly, domestic violence intervention, and on and on.

When these kinds of programs are zeroed out, the impact is profound. Jobs are eliminated and vital services are no longer available.

Poverty and its associated costs to governments increase. In terms of budgets, it’s the definition of being penny-wise and pound-foolish. ABCD, for example, has been very effective in preventing evictions, working diligently with landlords, tenants and others to keep individuals and families from becoming homeless. When such efforts are successful, they not only keep individuals and families in their homes, they keep taxpayers from having to foot the very expensive bill of housing individuals and families in shelters.

President Obama may be trying to score a few political points by presenting himself as a budget cutter willing to attack programs that he has said he favors. But the price of those points in potential human suffering is much too high.

The president’s budget director, Jacob Lew, said in The New York Times: “The budget is not just a collection of numbers, but an expression of our values and aspirations.”

I couldn’t agree more.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on February 20, 2011, on page WK11 of the New York edition.