Anti-Poverty Groups Alarmed At Obama Budget

Anti-poverty groups are upset at deep cuts in President Obama's budget affecting programs that help low-income people, including community service block grants and low-income energy assistance. They argue that cutting such aid will hurt the nation's economic recovery by targeting those struggling to get back on their feet.

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Anti-poverty advocates knew that President Obama's budget would not make them happy. Now, they can see the fine print. Details released today show significant cuts in some programs, but not all.

As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, the groups are worried now about how the president's opening bid will influence what happens on Capitol Hill.

PAM FESSLER: The first warning that things would be tough came in the State of the Union address when President Obama talked about the deficit. Advocates for the poor took note of two lines especially.

BARACK OBAMA: I propose cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs.

FESSLER: And then he added this.

OBAMA: But let's make sure that we're not doing it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

JEANNIE CHAFFIN: And that is exactly right. We don't want to do that.

FESSLER: Jeannie Chaffin is with the National Association for State Community Services Programs. She and others plan to make this point repeatedly in the coming months. Chaffin says the president's plan to cut Community Services Block Grants in half would devastate one of the country's biggest anti-poverty programs, which now serves about 20 million low-income Americans.

CHAFFIN: There's a lot of need out there that we can't meet at this current funding levels.

DANA JONES: Cut this building in half. In fact, half of the debt on this building is paid for with that block grant.

FESSLER: Dana Jones runs the community action agency in Washington, D.C., one of more than a thousand such agencies across the country. He's mad that he's been targeted for cuts while things like entitlements and taxes have been left alone. His agency provides job training, Head Start, housing, tax preparation and other services for the poor.

JONES: The least employable, those who are marginalized in this society. And quite honestly, if we're not willing to address that population, then America can't succeed.

FESSLER: But Jones and other advocates know they're up against some powerful interests on Capitol Hill, and that it hasn't helped their cause that an ally in the White House has proposed the cuts.

Deborah Weinstein is executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, an advocacy group for the poor.

DEBORAH WEINSTEIN: In a way, the president seems to have gone out of his way to show that he was serious about reducing the deficit by cutting programs that he does care about. That is not much comfort to the low-income people who will be affected and harmed by these cuts.

FESSLER: And one of the most controversial is a proposal to reduce home energy assistance for the poor by about $2.5 billion.

RALPH MARKUS: A lot of homes would be cold, basically, is what would happen.

FESSLER: Ralph Markus administers the program in Maryland. He says about 50,000 households in the state could lose help paying their heating and other energy bills.

MARKUS: It also potentially can be a health risk. A lot of our families are families with either disabled persons or a lot of elderly apply for the program.

FESSLER: But the administration says it has to cut somewhere, and that the proposed budget would help the poor in other ways. It would keep current spending for programs like Head Start and federal housing assistance. It would also provide new vouchers for homeless veterans and more money to prevent homelessness.

Linda Couch, with the National Low Income Housing Coalition, thinks more housing aid is needed. But she says...

LINDA COUCH: I would say, all in all, the president seems to have recognized how critical these safety net programs are. We just hope that, you know, this isn't the high-water mark.

FESSLER: She notes that Republicans have already proposed to make steep cuts in these programs.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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