President Bush refers to himself as a wartime president, and he has shown resolve not to back down on the battlefield. But the budget he released this week waves a flag of surrender in another war, the 40-year "war on poverty."
The budget announces cuts of 28% — or $1.4 billion — from our arsenal of critical social programs. The largest and most vital to Los Angeles is the Community Development Block Grant. As more cities draw on poverty-fighting grants each year, Los Angeles' allocation has steadily decreased, from $88.6 million in 2003 to $82.7 million this year. Under the proposed cuts, our allocation would plummet by at least $15 million.
Alongside previously proposed cuts to Section 8 housing assistance, these reductions send a stark message to the country's poor, its elderly and its urban youth: You're no longer our problem.
In Los Angeles, these grants pay for after-school programs, home repairs for the elderly in blighted neighborhoods and intervention programs for youth on the brink of joining or already in gangs. They spur economic development projects and fund outreach to the homeless.
Now the president wants to cut these groups off from the prospects of economic recovery. That represents a radical departure from a nation's commitment to its most vulnerable citizens.
In the prosperous decades after World War II, the nation found too many Americans still without access to decent housing, education and economic opportunity. Later, from President Johnson's declaration of a war on poverty in 1964 to the expansion of federal anti-poverty programs under presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter, a national consensus emerged supporting the federal government's power and duty to alleviate disenfranchisement and powerlessness in our poorest urban and rural areas. Even President Reagan, a conservative hero, expanded block grants.
The programs Bush intends to cut enjoy bipartisan support in Congress: Conservatives often favor block grants, which allow local governments to set their own agenda to fight poverty. Federal officials have suggested that the cuts are intended to hold local governments "more accountable." The Department of Housing and Urban Development already conditions grants on oversight and meeting exacting standards.
Even more perverse, the president himself has called the country's attention to causes that his own budget abandons. His State of the Union address admirably underscored the fight against gang violence. But the organizations that struggle to do what Bush called "giving young people, especially young men in our cities, better options than apathy, or gangs, or jail" rely on block grant funds.
The president has also sworn to end homelessness in a decade, but block grants finance the city and county's homeless services and make up 20% of the city's Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
New ideas are welcome in the struggle against poverty. Fiscal discipline will be necessary to balance an overstretched budget. But this budget attempts neither. The war on poverty has suddenly become a war on the poor.
Eric Garcetti, who represents the 13th District on the Los Angeles City Council, chairs the city's Housing, Community and Economic Development Committee.
© 2005 LA Times