So the Department of Housing and Urban Development wants to stop requiring cities that receive community development block grants to spend the bulk of those federal funds on projects that help low- and moderate-income families. Instead, HUD would give cities authority to spend such money on eligible projects of their own choosing, and plans to stop monitoring how much of the grant money goes to projects that help the poor.
As if poor and working people weren't having enough trouble, this plan is a good example of the federal government further abdicating its responsibilities to its citizens. If these regulations are adopted, a program that Congress created to aid low- and moderate-income Americans would become little more than revenue-sharing.
Money cities once used for housing rehabilitation, street improvement, urban renewal, social services and construction of parks and other public facilities would no longer have to go to help the neediest. Those funds could, and most likely would, end up helping those with political and financial clout to build heaven only knows what.
In the 60s, during the heyday of the Office of Economic Opportunity, block grants were rejected in favor of direct grants. The feds bypassed city government and gave money directly to individual organizations dealing with the neediest people. Many cities, of course, did not like this and battled constantly to change it.
During the Nixon-Ford era, the direct grant approach was scrapped in favor of the block development grant program. Under Carter, HUD pushed cities to allocate three-quarters of grant funds to projects for low- and moderate-income people, and launched a rigorous monitoring process to make certain money was spent as Congress intended.
But early into the Reagan administration, Congress said cities no longer had to complete detailed HUD applications to get money. HUD officials say that during that debate, Congress indicated that cities should have authority to spend the grant money for "purposes other than" helping low- and moderate-income Americans.
Eligible projects were always required to meet one of three criteria--to help erase urban blight, meet an "urgent need," or to assist low- and moderate-income residents. The previous administration, however, interpreted the law to mean that even those projects aimed at urban blight or urgent needs had to also benefit the poor.
"Our new proposed regulations are intended to be consistent with the law," said Stephen Bollinger, HUD's assistant secretary for community planning and development, arguing that his agency simply wants to formalize what it sees as Congress' true intent: to have three separate categories of eligible programs, only one of which would involve benefits to low- and moderate-income citizens.
Not everyone agrees.
"In the name of efficiency and returning responsibilities to localities," said M. Carl Holman, president of the National Urban Coalition, "the federal government would abdicate responsibilities intended by Congress and increase the likelihood that those most in need would be deprived of the benefits of those programs and protections now in place."
Moves like this one are really about pushing one philosophy of government over another. What Ronald Reagan calls new federalism is really old states' rights -- emphasizing again and again the rights of local governments over the responsibility of the federal government to insure that all citizens are treated equally.
Treating different groups differently is nothing new for this administration, but this attitude is beginning to have effects broader than the president may have anticipated. When you look around Reagan country, good people who thought trickle-down was okay for others are finding trickle-up at work, as well. The pain of joblessness and economic desperation is spreading, trickling up from the poor to many who never expected to face these problems.
It is up to the Congress to step in in this case and block this attack on the poor, by rejecting the proposed regulations when it comes back in session. Cities already fighting for fiscal solvency in a time of shrinking revenues will be more tempted than ever to use block grants for general revenue purposes. For the poor and working class to get any piece of the action, Congress will have to step in and make guarantees.
It is time to show that fiscal responsibility does not mean this country must end its efforts to help with compassion those Americans who need it most.