A proposal by the administration of President Donald Trump to eliminate a long-standing anti-poverty program could cost Nassau and Suffolk counties $18.3 million in annual federal funding that has been used to revitalize blighted neighborhoods, build affordable housing and fund local food banks.
The 2018 White House budget proposal calls for an end to the $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program. Administration officials described the 43-year-old program as “not well-targeted to the poorest,” and said it “has not demonstrated a measurable impact on communities.”
But Long Island’s congressional delegation and local social service agencies argue that CDBG-funded initiatives such as adult literacy courses, first-time home buyer workshops, and community revitalization projects have helped lift generations of people out of poverty. They say these long-term success stories are hard to quantify in annual reports.
Frederick Combs, executive director of the Bellport Hagerman East Patchogue Alliance, a Bellport nonprofit that helps low-income residents find and maintain affordable housing, said the $40,000 CDBG grant the agency received last year helped pay for two caseworkers. Their duties include helping seniors facing eviction, homeless veterans and victims of mortgage fraud.
“Without that funding we’re going to have more homeless people on the street,” Combs said. “The bottom line, I’m going to say it, we’re never going to put an end to poverty . . . Look at all the people that the program has assisted that are not in the same situation anymore, that are not homeless, that are first-generation homeowners.”
Randi Shubin Dresner, president and chief executive of Island Harvest, a food bank that distributes aid across Long Island, said CDBG funding helps sponsor one of the organization’s mobile food pantries that serves Freeport residents.
“Every little bit counts, any loss of funding, means we’ll have to take it from some other program in our organization that needs it just as much,” Dresner said.
Reps. Peter King (R-Seaford), Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and Gregory Meeks (D-St. Albans) joined a bipartisan coalition of 164 U.S. House members who signed a letter in April urging House GOP leaders to restore the $3.3 billion in CDBG funding as Congress negotiates a new budget deal. Reps. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) also said they support keeping the program.
King said, while “there is always room for improvement,” programs funded by the block grant “can make a difference between someone going over the edge or not.”
King said, “there are a number of people who have gotten out of poverty because of literacy programs . . . It’s hard to put an actual dollar amount on that, but it happens enough that it’s worth keeping the program.”
Larry Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University, said the CDBG program has faced questions about its effectiveness in the past, primarily from groups and lawmakers with competing visions of how the money should be spent.
However, the block grants generally have served as a “reliable way for local officials” to “target local needs” that may not be apparent to officials in Washington, D.C.
“It’s really a way of returning some of the tax dollars we disproportionately send to Washington,” Levy said.
George C. Galster, a professor of urban studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, who has studied the impact of the CDBG program in several U.S. cities, said the grants have “helped local jurisdictions improve housing conditions, public infrastructure, public services and economic opportunities.”
But the program could stand improvement, Galster said.
The Trump administration should ensure that a greater share of funding reaches communities with higher concentrations of poverty, Galster said. Also, the federal government should commission more studies to evaluate the long-term impact of the grants.
“An expanded CDBG program could much better serve the national interest than the abolition of the program,” Galster said in an email.