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Obama's proposed budget cuts could have a direct effect on Pima County's poorest residents

In this budget-slashing era, picking on the poor has become a bipartisan endeavor.

To make a miniscule dent in the enormous federal deficit, President Obama has proposed deep cuts for Community Service Block Grants (CSBG). Instead of going after big-ticket items such as military expenditures, Obama has proposed reducing CSBG funding by 50 percent.

Locally, that would halve the $824,000 received this year by the Pima County Community Action Agency. This funding—which has remained fairly constant over the last seven years—helps thousands of low-income households which are experiencing an emergency.

About half of the money is distributed through a competitive process to various outside agencies, according to program manager Rosemary Cora-Cruz.

"In Pima County, we operate a collaborative effort with agencies that have the expertise," Cora-Cruz says.

She says that if these agencies each got 50 percent less, "they'd really be hurting. Could they run their program with less? They'd serve many fewer people, and (some of them) that serve the most vulnerable may have to close."

This year, a dozen local agencies were awarded CSBG funding. The resultant assistance ranged from food boxes in rural areas to the mentoring of GLBT youth to emergency housing.

With $50,000, St. Elizabeth of Hungary Clinic funds a prescription service for the poor.

"These drugs can be quite expensive, and people have no way to fill them," notes the clinic's Dana Pepper. "They don't fall under those $4 plans (that some pharmacies offer)."

Pepper says the program allows up to a $200 annual voucher for qualified participants and calls the service "invaluable."

"It allows them to get well by treating an acute condition so they can stay out of the emergency room," Pepper says. "If the program weren't available, the prescription wouldn't get filled, and the person would likely go back to the ER."

A 50 percent cut would hurt, Pepper says. "We'd lower our maximum cap," she predicts, "and try to reach as many people as possible. We would also appeal for other grants to cover the shortfall. We'd do the best we could."

John Barnes, of Arizona Housing and Prevention Services, shares that sentiment about the possible cuts. Barnes says his agency received $49,000 in CSBG funding, which it uses to help provide $50 to $200 retail gift cards to poor households living in rural Pima County. Facing an emergency caused by illness, job loss or other crises, the recipient can buy necessities such as food or hygiene products with those cards.

The agency assisted about 380 households last year. If the program funding is cut by half, Barnes speculates: "We'd probably reduce the number of people who are helped by 50 percent."

Another project funded by the CSBG program is Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. Operated by the UA's Pima County Cooperative Extension, it assists about 300 grandparents and 400 grandchildren annually.

"We do a lot of collaborating and partnering with other agencies," says Eric Larsen, who oversees the program. "We work with the youth to build their self-confidence."

What if Obama's proposed cuts are enacted? "We'd have to try to work around a budget cut," Larsen says, "by getting creative on funding and looking for other sources of support."

The balance of the CSBG funding that Pima County receives is evenly split between administrative costs and the operation of its own mortgage-assistance/eviction-prevention program.

Deputy County Administrator Hank Atha says of this latter project: "It provides direct emergency financial assistance for people going through a crisis that could make them homeless."

Believing a 50 percent reduction in funding would have "a huge impact," Atha wonders whether the outside-agency programs funded by the county could survive. He also questions the suggestion made by some budget-balancers that churches and other private institutions will pick up the slack if the federal government cuts its funding.

"Churches do an enormous amount, but they're getting overwhelmed," Atha says. "I don't think they can provide the immediate, direct financial assistance that people with an emergency need. What they can provide is important, but in my opinion, they won't make up the difference."

Cynthia Zwick, executive director of the Arizona Community Action Association in Phoenix, agrees. "Given the economy, churches are struggling themselves, and there's no way they could make up the gap," she says.

Zwick points out that in each of the last three years, Arizona has received about the same amount of CSBG funding. This year, the total was $5.7 million.

"We really do provide a hand up and not a handout," Zwick says of the CSBG program. "It allows families to become economically stable."

Jim Watson chairs the committee that selects which Pima County agencies receive CSBG funding. "It's a terrible time to do these cuts," he says. "They hurt people who need help the most."

Watson says that local unemployment remains high, and many people are financially struggling more than they were a few years ago. Reductions in the CSBG program, he says, will just exacerbate that situation.

"A lot of families will have to go without," Larsen says about the proposed cuts, "and they'll have to decide which basic needs to meet. We shouldn't be cutting taxes for the very rich and cutting services for the poor at the same time."

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