An article yesterday on an audit of an antipoverty agency cited statistics regarding indictments and convictions of officials whose groups were funded by the Community Services Administration. Those figures related to the hundreds of groups funded by CSA, not to the few dozen community development corporations. CSA's inspector general said yesterday he believed that few if any criminal charges have involved community development groups.
From the beginning it was an agency most Republicans loved to hate.
Richard Nixon tried to abolish it. The Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, called it a left-wing assault on the free enterprise system. And, less than a year into his term, Ronald Reagan shut it down, scattering many employes who had been there since the War on Poverty to the unemployment lines and leaving behind $25 million in unspent discretionary antipoverty funds.
But even now the troubles are not over for the agency, which began its life under Lyndon Johnson as the Office of Economic Opportunity, was renamed the Community Services Administration and is known, in a far different era, as the Office of Community Services.
How to spend the $25 million, who should decide how to spend it and whether the money should be spent at all have resurrected a long-standing ideological dispute over the best ways to help the poor. In the thick of the argument are many former employes of the defunct Community Services Administration and the new Office of Community Services.
At issue are the last of the direct antipoverty grants available in the country now that community block grants to the states are in vogue. At first, Health and Human Services Secretary Richard Schweiker proposed turning the funds back to the Treasury, but Congress said no. Now the agency is under orders to spend the money by Sept. 30 and, to help evaluate proposals, it has invited outside businessmen and academics from around the country to serve as $100-a-day "readers."
Such grants used to be judged "in-house." Going outside, according to one official, will bring in poverty grant evaluators with "real world expertise" and no connections to the old way of doing things.
"I wanted new blood, I wanted a new approach," says Robert L. Trachtenberg, the acting director of the Office of Community Services until last month. He acknowledges that people from the old Community Services Administration -- some of whom have been hired at the newly-reconstituted agency to help with closeout, transition and block grant activities -- were consciously excluded, explaining that it was felt they could not be objective reviewers.
But ex-CSA workers, who have been waging court and administrative battles over their employment status, say they were "blacklisted" from being readers because the antipoverty programs they had administered are in disfavor with the Reagan administration. They contend that it is foolish for the government to pick up the readers' tabs for air fare, food, lodging and $100-a-day consulting fees, when more qualified poverty program evaluators live in the Washington area and could use the work.
"This is the one place where I thought I could not possibly be denied a job," says Carol Horwitz, a 39-year-old, former grants reviewer for the Community Service Administration who has not been able to find full-time work since the agency went out of existence last Sept. 30, taking 900 jobs with it. "I'm right here, and that's what I did for three years."
The former CSA employes also say they are concerned that worthwhile programs will die for want of federal assistance or because some of the people helping to evaluate them are not familiar with the problems of the poor. These suspicions were aroused by the discovery of a list, apparently prepared by an official of the Office of Community Services, indicating that many of those chosen as readers may have been selected for their Republican connections rather than their antipoverty expertise.
Under a column titled "Source of Referral," 67 out of 85 prospective readers are listed as having been recommended by the Young Republicans, the Republican National Committee, "Reagan/Bush" or the Heritage Foundation. At least 15 of those invited, according to the list, live in Pennsylvania, Schweiker's home state, and several, according to Federal Election Commission records, have contributed to the GOP.
The Heritage Foundation has denied making any such referrals, and OCS officials say they can't explain why such a list was put together. They deny that the source of an applicant's referral was a factor in selection, but doubts persist.
"It sounds like a political payoff to me," says Gordon Raley, staff director of a subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee that has jurisdiction over antipoverty programs. "If they say they're hiring experts, these people had better be experts -- and experts in the problems of the disadvantaged."
According to Raley and other critics of the agency, cutbacks in the antipoverty program and delays in giving out what little money is available already have killed some community programs and jeopardized others.
"If this administration had its way, none of these programs would be funded," Raley says.
But Trachtenberg, former deputy counsel at the old Office of Economic Opportunity, counters that many programs funded by theagency's predecessor were "badly managed and badly thought out." He says that time of what he calls "federal largesse" resulted in "horror stories" of abuse and mismanagement of government money. And he worries that the controversy over the readers is being fanned by people who "believe that if they just wait long enough the good old days of OEO and billion-dollar programs will come back."
Raley challenges this assessment of the antipoverty program, saying he knows of only 11 out of some 900 local community action agencies where abuses and mismanagement occurred, and that these were not the fault of agency employes.
About 200 people, working from three to five days each, are expected to be hired as readers before the evaluations process ends. They are being told, officials say, to look for poverty grant proposals that can attract private sector investment and demonstrate continuity beyond next year, when direct federal antipoverty grants are expected to dry up.
Now deputy administrator at the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, Trachtenberg says other federal agencies have long relied on outside experts to help evaluate grant proposals and serve as a check and balance against the "inside" person who may have a favorite program. He believes the professors, investment counselors and corporate officers, and the local, state and federal officials who also have been solicited as readers, have both expertise and objectivity.
He has little sympathy for the argument that it would have been cheaper to use some former Community Services Administration employes. Trachtenberg says it is a matter "of a couple of hundred thousand dollars of per diem and consulting fees versus the potential waste of another $25 million in program grants."
The readers, the first group of whom arrived the week of July 12, will serve on evaluations panels that will read and rate grant proposals in the fields of urban and rural economic development, rural housing services and migrant and seasonal farm workers. More than 500 such proposals have been received since May, two-thirds of them dealing with economic development issues.
Former agency employes are concerned that many of these proposals may be shunned by conservative-minded evaluators. But a member of the first group of readers says that newly issued, more narrowly defined, federal guidelines will hurt antipoverty programs more than will any panel of reviewers.
"The reviewers are only following a set of guidelines, and the guidelines prevent consideration of a lot of worthy proposals," says William Koch, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, who was asked to help evaluate programs for migrants. He said the new criteria favor projects that tend to get migrants into alternative employment, not those that provide basic support services during such an employment transition.
"People still need to eat," said Koch, who argues that "the real tragedy is that the money for numerous antipoverty and social programs is constantly being eroded" under the Reagan administration.
Dee Kelley, executive director of the Louisiana Housing Assistance Corp., a current grant recipient, has another concern. While people in Washington argue about the best way to help the poor, she says, the poor are suffering.
"I've got seven young children who are sick because of lead poisoning, and I'm trying to find them some other place to live," says Kelley. Her housing rehabilitation group has been receiving annual federal grants since 1976, and she is awaiting word on whether her application for $200,000 will be approved this year. Meanwhile, the Housing Assistance Corp. has given her until the end of the month to return $120,000 left over from a grant she received last year from the Community Services Administration. She explains that she has been slow in spending the money because cutbacks in CETA funds forced her to hire older workers who take longer to complete the projects.
With the money she is being asked to return, Kelley says, "you could do almost 200 houses down here." She worries that her fate is being decided by people "who don't know beans about housing," and that without a new federal grant, "I'll be out of business."