CONGRESS KEEPS IT GRANTS ON–JUST BARELY

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In a budget battle where Congress robs Peter to pay Paul, you could call the Social Services Block Grant program “Pete.” This block grant, which funds everything from adoption and foster care services to meals on wheels for the elderly, has brought up the rear in the line of finding bills Congress must pass.

So while a House Appropriations subcommittee voted last Thursday to keep SSBG funding steady, social services budget watchers fear that when a Senate subcommittee takes up the bill this week, the Senators may slaughter the program, cutting as much as $900 million from the fund.

“[It] would certainly be a blow to our ability to serve more children and help create more self-dependent families,” said Philip Coltoff, executive director of the Children’s Aid Society of New York. SSBG, also known as Title XX funds, are distributed to states–with New York getting a $162.2 million share in the last budget–and then to local governments.

Much of the money is doled out to nonprofit agencies like Children’s Aid, who contract with cities to provide services to needy populations. SSBG-funded services tend to be labor-intensive, meaning that wage growth of as little as 3 percent could cause service cutbacks.

Under the 1996 welfare law, the block grant is supposed to be funded at $2.38 billion, but this year the President asked for only $1.9 billion, which is what the House okayed.

SSBG had the bad luck of being part of the Labor/Health and Human Services spending plan, the last appropriations bill moving through the committee. Earlier in the process, lawmakers took money earmarked for SSBG and used it to pay for other programs.

“Throughout the process this year, other appropriations bills were stealing from Labor/HHS. They were digging themselves a deeper and deeper hole,” said Wendell Primus of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Congress is also squeezed by discretionary spending caps created by the Balanced Budget Act and its own desire to leave the Social Security surplus untouched.

In other budget news, the House last week passed appropriations for the Department of Housing and Urban Development that included no new money for Section 8 vouchers and deep cuts to Hope VI (8 percent cut), Community Development Block Grants (5 percent cut) and other key programs. Late Friday, the Senate passed a budget that also neglected to add any new vouchers. Its version, however, contained less dramatic budget reductions.

Still, with no new vouchers, “this is not a bill we should be happy with,” said Linda Couch of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. But there’s still hope. Last year, a bonus of 50,000 Section 8 vouchers was tacked on to the HUD appropriations bill while it was being hashed out between the House and the Senate. This year, senators speaking before the vote voiced a desire to bring the voucher issue up during conference again.