A nation’s budget is not just a blueprint for spending and revenues reflecting the country’s activities. It is also, importantly, a statement on the country’s values, its priorities, its’ vision for how it will work towards creating that elusive “more perfect union.”
In this last regard, the budget unveiled by the Trump Administration earlier this week is an unmitigated disaster. It not only will pull the rug out from under millions of low-income husbands, wives, parents, grandparents and children – hundreds of thousands here in Wisconsin – it will do so with a shrug and a “who cares” from the federal government.
The Community Services Block Grant: core funding for Wisconsin’s Community Action Agencies, enabling the creation of innovative programs leading to self-sufficiency (like our Job and Business Development program assisting low-income entrepreneurs) and serving as the “glue” that allows CAAs to leverage other numerous resources for local communities ($167 million in 2016). Currently funded at $713 million, the Trump Administration proposes $0 funding in Federal Fiscal Year 2018. Last year, Wisconsin’s CAAs served over 212,000 low-income individuals; it is impossible to gauge the number that could be directly and negatively impacted by the Trump budget proposal to zero out funding. But … “who cares.”
The Weatherization Assistance Program: The federal Weatherization Assistance program provides resources to weatherize the homes of low-income households, thereby helping those families and individuals to save substantially on their energy bills and providing for a healthier and more comfortable living environment while also helping to conserve energy and essential natural resources. Weatherization also serves as a valuable economic engine; for every one dollar spent on weatherization in the local community, that dollar turns over two to three times in added economic benefit to businesses and taxpayers. Last year, the weatherization program (funded nationally at $230 million) provided $8 million to Wisconsin; Community Action Agencies provided weatherization to 3,476 homes. The Trump Administration budget proposes $0 in FY 2018 funding, zeroing out the program. But … “who cares.”
The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP): LIHEAP has served as an absolutely essential benefit for hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin citizens in paying their energy bills. It has been a particularly effective tool in preventing or mitigating elderly poverty. It has been of value to all Wisconsin’s utility customers in that it has helped reduce uncollectible accounts which would otherwise be absorbed by all customers. Last year, Wisconsin residents eligible for the program received an average benefit of $243 toward their energy bills; a total of over $80 million in energy assistance in Wisconsin. Here, too, the Trump Administration proposes to zero out funding for LIHEAP in FY 2018. No benefits will mean increased uncollectibles and the attendant increased burden on bills of all customers; it will also mean increased health and safety danger when power is disconnected for failure to pay a bill. But … “who cares.”
These are just three programs that are of particular importance to Community Action Agencies in Wisconsin and throughout the nation. Across the board, the Trump Administration budget proposes to eviscerate or abolish many other programs which are successfully helping low-income families and individuals work towards economic self-sufficiency: Medicaid, Community Development Block Grants, HOME Housing Partnership program, Senior Community Service Employment program, Corporation for National and Community Service, Legal Services Corporation, Woman, Infants and Children, Community Economic Development Grants … the list goes on and on in mind-numbing cruelty.
Contrary to much of the media noise, these programs are working; as the just-released Poverty in Wisconsin report (authored by the Institute for Research on Poverty) shows, for the first time since before the Great Recession, poverty rates declined in Wisconsin in 2015. If the Trump Administration is successful – or even somewhat successful – in achieving its proposed cuts, we will be immediately tumbling back downwards, creating more poverty and stripping away the hopes for economic self-sufficiency from hundreds of thousands of low-and-moderate income families.
The authors of the proposed budget bill are saying, by their actions, “who cares”. But we in the Community Action world have faith that the vast majority of Wisconsin’s citizens and leaders are saying “we care” in response. Because we have faith that we are a more decent, a more moral and a wiser nation than the FY 2018 Trump budget would have us believe. And that we will not let it stand.
This year’s Poverty Matters! Conference will be held Wednesday, September 13-Thursday, September 14 at the Holiday Inn Hotel & Convention Center in Stevens Point, WI.
More information on the conference can be found here.
Next year will be my 40th in Community Action and one of the most satisfying outcomes of all that time has been the hundreds and hundreds of people I’ve met and been fortunate to build working relationships with – people whose passion and dedication for social justice is great and continually growing.
I mention this because, as we leave the old year behind and move into the new one, those hundreds of people – magnified by thousands and thousands across the state – will be more precious than ever as our state and nation navigate the unknown and potentially dangerous shoals of continued service to low-income households and communities.
While every transition into a new year foreshadows uncertainty, there are more than the usual amount of questions this year, due in great part to last month’s elections. What will the Trump administration look like? What will be their view on low-income policy and operational issues? What will potential changes mean for our Community Action network and the multitude of other agencies serving low-income individuals?
Most importantly, what will these potential changes mean to low-income households and their efforts to escape poverty? Will we see more attention paid and support provided to those in the shadows? More creativity and opportunity for low-income individuals to achieve economic self-sufficiency? Or will we see a growth in – and hardening of – the mean-spirited policies that were all too prevalent in 2016?
On the state level, the last two years saw an unprecedented level of attention paid to existing low-income programs, policies and services; almost all of this attention based on the belief that the best way to help someone is with ‘sticks’, not ‘carrots’. With current legislative control more firmly esconsed after the November elections, will we see a continuation and/or expansion of this attitude? Or a more humanistic, cooperative, enabling approach to attacking poverty, one that treats low-income families as equal partners in their attempts to achieve economic self-sufficiency?
Many of us are familiar with the phrase the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. (and many others) used that “the arc of justice bends toward justice.” A slightly lengthier reference to this same concept, written anonymously in the last 1800s, expands on the phrase:
“We cannot understand the moral Universe. The arc is a long one, and our eyes reach but a little way; we cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but we can divine it by conscience, and we surely know that it bends toward justice. Justice will not fail, though wickedness appears strong, and has on its side the armies and thrones of power, the riches and the glory of the world, and though poor men crouch down in despair. Justice will not fail and perish out from the world of men, nor will what is really wrong and contrary to God’s real law of justice continually endure.”
It is easy to look over the political and policy landscape going into 2017 and “crouch down in despair.” But Community Action is not made that way. Our state and our country are not made that way. The truth is that tens of thousands of low-income families escape poverty every year and that Community Action Agencies are, across the state, doing marvelous, innovative work with limited resources. The truth is that the vast majority of our fellow citizens want to help their neighbors; they want to help low-income households achieve economic self-sufficiency; they realize we are all in this together.
The truth is that the difference is in methods, not goals. And, as long as that remains the case, we will continue to be optimistic about the future, continue to be engaged in serving our communities, continue to believe the future will be a bright one and that our network’s efforts to work towards social justice are important and worthwhile. We will continue to believe that the ‘arc of the moral Universe’ bends toward justice … that justice will not fail … and that the ‘real law of justice continually endures.’
Happy Holidays to all of you and yours … and WISCAP’s best wishes for a healthy, happy and productive 2017!
l. to r. – Robert Fait, Bank of Mauston Board of Directors; Roxanne Shragal, Bank of Mauston Administrative Assistant; Michael Lindert, Bank of Mauston President; Charlie Krupa – CWCAC Board Vice President; JK Walsh, Bank of Mauston Vice President; Fred Hebert, CWCAC Executive Director
Central Wisconsin Community Action Council, Inc. (CWCAC, Inc.) continues to pursue development of affordable housing. The agency was awarded a grant of $412,000 from the Division of Housing & Energy in September for building a single-level linear structure in the City of Mauston. At the request and endorsement of Juneau County Human Services Department and the Director, Scott Ethun, CWCAC, Inc. will construct a ten-apartment building consisting of eight (1) bedroom units and two (2) bedroom units. Tenants will be referred from the counties Community Support Program and Families in Transition.
Central Wisconsin Community Action Council, Inc. purchased two large lots within the City of Mauston; one will be for this project, the other eventually for an office building. In addition to grant funding, the Bank of Mauston will provide a mortgage to ensure construction funding. Total cost is budgeted at $654,000. Construction will begin this fall with completion expected in the spring of 2017.
There are hundreds of thousands of low-income individuals in Wisconsin (13% of the state’s population); individuals attempting to get a leg up on the ladder to self-sufficiency. There are also hundreds of low-income communities in our state – most very small and very rural – also reaching for self-sufficiency in their ability to provide even basic services to their residents. Basic services, for example, such as safe and efficient water and wastewater systems.
For twenty-four years, Bill Brown served as WISCAP’s resource to these communities. He came to WISCAP in June of 1992 to set-up, organize and implement federally-funded water and wastewater systems for these very rural and very small Wisconsin communities. Over the years, these services grew and expanded. As WISCAP’s Rural Development Director, Bill grew a staff; a very efficient staff and one well-accepted in the communities in which they worked. Bill developed strong working relationships with Wisconsin’s eleven Native American tribes, opening doors of trust and cooperation for many essential services that continue to this day. He kept pushing us all to look at expanding the Rural Development Department’s scope to include provision of other essential community services, helping small towns, villages and unincorporated units to have fair access at Community Development Block Grants and other public programming to improve living conditions in their communities.