The following column is by longtime urban commentator Neal Peirce:
The budget imbroglio seizing Congress (and most state legislatures) throws an ominous shadow over America’s cities and towns — and their people.
It’s time for our local governments, which deal day-to-day with the impacts of rising needs and insufficient revenues, to roar back with indignation and a demand fresh thinking.
The grassroots America that’s famously advertised for its strong communities is on the fiscal ropes. And it will be hurt even more deeply by many of the budget cuts now being voted.
It’s easier to excuse governors and state legislatures with balanced budget requirements, grappling with the grim impact of recession-undermined revenues and fast escalating health costs.
But the Republican Congress and President Obama, their differences notwithstanding, deserve failing grades for focusing all their budget-cutting efforts on the 15 percent of the federal budget accounted for by non-defense discretionary spending.
The result has been a carnival of knife-wielding that may get even worse with the next fiscal year. While massive farm subsidies are left intact, we’re in danger of shrinking or killing programs that provide some relief from poverty, assist public transit and Amtrak, underwrite Head Start and parts of college tuitions, support the Legal Services Corporation, family planning counsel and technology innovation programs.
Other targets include the new, extraordinarily competitive TIGER (for transportation) and Sustainable Communities (housing-environment-transportation) grant programs. The knife may also terminate the Hope VI public housing program with its signature achievements in substituting economically integrated and stable neighborhoods in place of high-rise, poverty-laden, crime-battered projects.
Of special concern to mayors is the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), program, destined for termination by the House Republicans.
Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback makes the point that flexible funding CDBG allows is used differently in different communites– “And that’s the whole point, to respond to special local needs and encourage innovation, based on the judgment of local officials ‘most in touch.’”
In the case of Minneapolis, Ryback notes, the block grants have covered initiatives ranging from bio-terrorism protections to anti-foreclosure counselling to helping prevent kids’ exposure to lead. The city’s also used CDBG to fund a youth-violence prevention initiative that’s cut back significantly on juvenile crime. And it’s also enabled a Neighborhood Employment Network that’s moved 12,000 people into decent-paying jobs through a set of community-based providers.
With city budgets “devastated” by state funding cuts, the assistance is needed more than ever, Ryback contends, adding: “It’s ironic that those who say they don’t want Washington controlling their lives are voting to take away the sole source — CDBG — where there’s local control of federal dollars.”
Arguably, the issue goes a lot deeper: It’s the danger of budget cuts stripping a range of federal activities to keep our communities strong and viable, even while vastly bigger parts of the federal budget escape deep scrutiny.
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