Trump wants to end a program that helps people in nearly every community in America

Trump’s budget eliminates the Community Development Block Grant, a massive and important source of funding for local needs.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Just before delivering her first son, Pam Lozano started looking for childcare. She only had a certain amount that she could spend on it, though, given that she was a student in medical assisting school. While she looked at several daycares in her city of Arlington, Texas, there was just one that she could afford: the Arlington Child Development Center.

The center is the only in the area that she could find that offers childcare on a sliding payment scale; that was critical for Lozano, who likely wouldn’t have qualified for help from government subsidies or free programs like Early Head Start. “I wouldn’t have been able to leave [my child] in childcare because it’s so expensive,” she said. Without the help of the sliding scale, “it’s like an extra rent payment or house payment a month.”

Now she’s out of school, and both of her young children get care from the same center, allowing her to go to work. Without the subsidized rate, “it’s almost double,” she said. “It would be a hardship.”

Just a five-minute drive away from the childcare center, Deborah Caddy has been serving victims of sexual violence for 30 years, first as a therapist with the The Women’s Center and now as its director of rape crisis and victim services program. “Predominantly, the type of clients that we’re going to serve… are going to be victims of sexual violence: sexual assault that recently has occurred or it could be childhood sexual abuse,” she said.

The clients who call her number or come through her doors are offered as many sessions with a therapist as they may need, whether it’s six weeks or six months, free of charge. “Just a couple of weeks ago we had a waiting list for services in Arlington,” she said. “That demonstrates the kind of need that there is for this type of service.”

And the impact on the community is large. “It holds an offender accountable, it helps your citizens to get the help and intervention that they need, and hopefully [a] young child will possibly raise the next generation that won’t face that situation,” she said. “It has a ripple effect.”

About five minutes driving in the other direction from the the Child Development Center, the Arlington Public Library runs a number of literacy programs: classes to help students get their GEDs, ESL classes for every conversational level, and reading programs for students whose schools may not have their own libraries.

The services are in high demand in an area with low literacy rates: one 2013 report ranked Arlington’s literacy rate 63 out of 77 large metropolises. Yet since the middle of 2010, 120 graduates of the library’s GED classes have earned their credentials. “That’s huge,” said Ivonne Kieffer, program management and community engagement administrator at the library. “Now they’re able to go and find a job… Now they’re working and giving back to their community.”

ESL classes are no less critical for employment. “You have to know English just to kind of survive and live,” she noted.

These three programs — a daycare center, support services for victims of violence, and a public library — may not appear to have much in common. But they share one important thing: all count on federal funding from the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) to serve their communities.

They’re just the tip of the mammoth iceberg that encompasses all of the activities funded by the CDBG. In Tarrant County, Texas alone — where all three of these programs operate — CDBG funds go to nearly two dozen different programs, which also include Meals on Wheels, HIV testing, Big Brothers Big Sisters, homeless shelters, and substance abuse counseling.

Yet if President Trump were to get his way, these funds would dry up completely. He called for the CDBG’s funding to be zeroed out in his budget proposal for this fiscal year and included no funding for it in 2018 in his larger budget request this week. The services these programs provide would be severely threatened or potentially eliminated entirely.

An anti-poverty program with a conservative streak

The Community Development Block Grant was created by the federal government in the mid-70s as a compromise between liberals and conservatives. Liberals got a program that expends federal money to help low-income Americans; conservatives got a program that hands administration of the funds down to the local level, rather than having the federal government dictate how they’re used. “This was a Nixon-era creation,” said Brett Theodos, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “It was a response to the [Johnson] era where the government was much more interventionist in local redevelopments.”

The CDBG rolled up eight different programs into one and now disperses money to states every year, which then distribute it even further down to the local level. The money gets used for a wide array of things: filling potholes, building affordable housing, helping the homeless. Cities and states can use the money for projects so long as they principally help low- and moderate-income residents, eliminate or prevent deteriorated housing, or meet other urgent needs.

In Tarrant County, the money doesn’t just fund public services. It’s also been used to address the area’s “affordable housing crisis as well as deteriorating infrastructure,” Roy Brooks, Tarrant County commissioner, said on a press call. The CDBG is the “number one source of funding” used to address these twin problems. “The Community Development Block Grant continues to be one of the most powerful tools in our community development toolbox,” he said.

That spending has a feedback effect: the CDBG money spent on building or upgrading housing supports construction jobs, which then gets cycled back into its economy.

“These dollars are vital to every city and every community in our county,” he said. He noted that the block grant may have been targeted because it represents a large number — $3 billion of government spending in 2016. But he argued that the benefits outweigh the cost. “In putting together the budget, perhaps [the administration] should use a scalpel instead of a meat ax,” he said.

“In putting together the budget, perhaps [the administration] should use a scalpel instead of a meat ax.”

The CDBG is an important source of funding for these kinds of projects. It’s one of the few federal community development programs. It’s flexible, allowing communities to “fill the gaps” from other kinds of funding, Theodos said.

“It’s a dedicated and steady source of revenue for community development,” he said. That in itself is significant. “Its steadiness over time [allows] localities to know what they can anticipate, they can rely on the funds and think about them more strategically” rather than going back to square one every year.

Stepping off a funding cliff with nothing to break the fall

It’s not certain exactly what the impact of taking the money away would be. “What’s not fully known is how much cities would try to make up for it,” Theodos said. Those with enough resources would likely try to fill in the resulting decline themselves.

But more fiscally pinched places probably can’t. “Some rural areas that are really strapped” would suffer, he said. “It’s also true for some very urban areas.”

All three programs in Arlington warned that they would have to dramatically scale back if CDBG money went away. The $33,000 in CDBG funding that the Center for Transforming Lives received this year, which runs the Arlington Child Development Center, doesn’t make up a huge portion of its budget, but it does allow the organization to offer childcare services to people like Pam Lozano.

“It makes a big difference for those families that are lower income but make too much to qualify for other kinds of childcare subsidies,” said Carol Klocek, the organization’s CEO. In Texas, families have to have extremely low incomes to get any assistance or qualify for Head Start. “CDBG funds really help fill in the gap for those families that are working but make too much money for other subsidies.”

Without the CDBG, “We would be able to offer less subsidized care,” she said. The organization would have to shift to trying to attract families that don’t need to rely on the sliding scale and can instead pay the full cost. “We would still provide care for children from low-income or homeless families,” she said. “It would just be that middle group that we wouldn’t be able to help.”

CDBG funding supports the clinical counseling that the Women’s Center offers for survivors of violence, allowing it to have at least one highly trained counselor available in Arlington Monday through Thursday. “It’s pretty critical; it’s essential,” Caddy said. The center gets just under $19,000 from the CDBG a year. “Our amount may not seem significant to someone, but it’s significant to us to be able to provide those services.”

“If those funds go away, we will have to dig and dig and try to find some way to replace them, and hope that we can,” she said. But, she admitted, “It would be hard.” The center already taps all the sources that it can and stretches every dollar it gets. “This would leave a hole if it were not there.”

“This would leave a hole if it were not there.”

The Arlington Public Library would have to reduce its GED and ESL classes, likely scaling back from its current year-round offerings or going from five classes a day to two. The city didn’t have the money to hire a literacy coordinator to set up and run these programs, so CDBG funding stepped in and filled that void. The rest of the staff is too burdened already to be able to take the work on. “You can’t do it,” Kieffer said. “One person can’t do it.”

“It will really have an impact if we don’t receive this funding,” she added. “It would [mean] cutting what we offer severely.”

Money that touches almost every American community

Trump provided an explanation in his preliminary budget outline for why he wants to get rid of the Community Development Block Grant, saying, “the program is not well-targeted to the poorest populations and has not demonstrated results.”

Theodos disputes this characterization. The problem, he said, is not that the program hasn’t demonstrated results, but that no one has put resources into doing a thorough evaluation in decades. “It’s also not proven ineffective,” he said. “There’s just not been an investment in learning about the program of late.”

The Department of Housing and Urban Development does collect self-reported data on what communities have done with their CDBG money, however. It found that between 2005 and 2013, the funding created or retained 330,546 jobs, helped provide services to more than 105 million people, assisted over 1.1 million people with housing, and benefitted 33 million people from improvements to public infrastructure.

In Newton, Massachusetts, the money has helped “build affordable housing, provide people with higher-paying jobs, and ensure that in this age of economic inequality there’s a foundation of opportunity in all of our cities,” said Setti Warren, the city’s mayor, on a call with the press. Newton just used the money to retrofit a home for people with disabilities so they can keep safely living in it. “We don’t have another funding source to create affordable units, moderate units here,” Warren said.

Columbia, South Carolina Mayor Stephen Benjamin recently attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for six new houses that were built in part with CDBG funding. The money is also currently being used to redevelop a rundown housing project and has helped revitalize its downtown. Cuts “would hamstring our local community development and our local housing when our citizens can least afford it,” he said on the same call. “Losing what has been one of the most effective tools in America as almost as if it were a flight of fancy would not only be wrongheaded, but it would be foolish.”

“Losing what has been one of the most effective tools in America as almost as if it were a flight of fancy would not only be wrongheaded, but it would be foolish.”

In Piscataway, New Jersey, CDBG money was just awarded to develop a large park so that it’s accessible to people with disabilities. “Those projects would not necessarily happen unless we had the funds to do that,” Mayor Brian Wahler said.

CDBG money has also failed to keep up with inflation and an increasing number of communities receiving the block grant. So it’s not known whether it could be accomplishing even more if the funding had kept pace.

What is known, though, is that these funds reach into every state and every Congressional district. Supporters are hoping to use that fact to help preserve it.

“We are united across cities and counties…to let everyone know that we are going to have a fierce fight to protect this program from being eliminated,” Tom Cochran, executive director of the United States Conference of Mayors, promised on the call with reporters. “We are in this to win.”