Poverty Politics: CSBG Picks Up Where Welfare Failed

Jason DeParle of the New York Times wrote last week, that despite all the rhetoric, the welfare reform of the late 1990s did nothing to “end poverty as we know it.” Despite the difficult economic times of recent years, the program has demonstrated little success beyond lower enrollment numbers. As the President continues to propose cuts to the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), the same results could occur. The scapegoats in funding cuts to CSBG are low-income people. DeParle’s argument could even be taken a step further to outline how our nation’s failure to actually address income disparities affects all of us. When a large segment of our population remains poor, lacks resources, and is unprepared to contribute to our struggling economy, we all lose. Welfare reform may have failed but there’s still time to invest in strategies that work, like CSBG.

As we look to the future to consider how CSBG can be a tool to aid struggling families and help individuals achieve economic security, we need to not only consider innovative and new approaches to addressing poverty, but also long-term strategies that ensure middle-class families remain  above the poverty line. So many Americans are “near-poor,” one crisis away from falling into poverty.

As the Times article says, lower welfare rolls disguise the fact that there are record numbers of people living in poverty in this country and they are receiving far less support than they did prior to the reforms. In an economic environment like this, cuts to low-income programs like CSBG will only add to the number of struggling Americans.

The actual dollar amount of money in the budget for community action programs is minuscule  and cutting it will not have any major impact on the deficit, but it would have devastating consequences for the individuals and families dependent on these services. In 2010, the national CSBG Network was able to serve more than 20 million low-income individuals, but there are still over 46 million children and adults in this country who are living below the poverty line.

DeParle’s analysis misses the mark about states’ role when he accuses them of “diverting” funds. He overlooks the multitude of benefits states provide to social programs like CSBG, such as oversight and accountability of federal dollars. Additionally, the state’s authority over multiple Federal programs allows it to help leverage resources and serve as a coordinator of benefits—things that aren’t usually feasible at a Federal level.

As the federal government’s anti-poverty arm, the CSBG network understands that long-term strategies to address structural poverty are critical. Part of the problem with the welfare reform of the ‘90s, as this article articulated so well, was that it encouraged people to move “off the rolls,” but not actually out of poverty completely. CSBG, however, provides the perfect opportunity to address an individual holistically and not only move them off benefits, but rather set them up for long-term success.


Written by Mark Schmeissing, Policy & Research Analyst for NASCSP.