By Monte Sahlin –

One of the items on the hit list of the new majority in the House of Representatives to "balance the budget" is the Community Action Program (CAP) or what is currently labeled Community Service Block Grants. This is a program begun in the 1960s in the Lyndon Johnson administration. It is a nearly unique program in that it empowers local, grass-roots organizations made up of partnerships of citizens and local elected officials. It is perplexing that the same party that wants to encourage solutions outside of government bureaucracy also wants to do away with one of the few examples of this kind of strategy actually being implemented.

I have personal knowledge of CAP because I worked in it for 18 months in 1971-72 while in graduate school. It was launched with the idea that it would help local citizen groups reduce or end poverty in their communities and it never really provided much that is in the self-interest of politicians or political parties. Over the years it has been weakened by every administration and both parties. Yet there are hundreds of local Community Action Agencies (CAA) that continue to work as best they can.

There are those that argue that CAP is a government program, despite the fact that each of the CAA are locally controlled and almost all of them are incorporated as nonprofits with 501c3 tax-exempt charity status. The law originally required that the majority of the board members be people living below the poverty line and some CAA still follow that guideline. The Federal funding is simply a catalyst, not the major source of the budgets for most CAA.

The savings to the Federal budget from cutting these funds is miniscule. It cannot make any difference in the deficit or repaying the debt. This is actually a good example of how budget cuts are often just a cover story for getting rid of things for other reasons. In fact, both parties have already agreed to not cut the items that are necessary if anything significant is going to be done about budget deficits or the national debt.

There are three kinds of opponents to the Community Action Program:

(1) Those who do not believe in doing anything about poverty. These are often people who believe that the economy will take care of itself and if no one helps the poor they will get jobs and take care of themselves. In my opinion, this view can only be sustained out of ignorance, even if it is willful ignorance. Any significant experience with entrenched poverty reveals that intervention is necessary to overcome it.

(2) Those who think private nonprofit organizations can fight poverty more cheaply than government. This category includes people who really do not care about the poor, but feel that civilization demands that something be done about poverty and want the cheapest possible solution. They choose to ignore the fact that the cheapest solution is not always the best solution.

(3) Those who think private nonprofit organizations can fight poverty more effectively than government. It is tragic that there are people who want to defund CAP on the basis of this logic. This is the very purpose for CAP. The inventors of CAP believed this precisely and designed the CAA on this basis. The Federal funding is simply a catalyst and the CAA are weak enough (especially at this moment in our economic history) that without the catalyst the whole structure could collapse in many communities where it is most needed.

In 1927 the great Mississippi flood demonstrated to Americans that the country had become too large and complex to continue a policy of non-involvement by the Federal government in issues related to disaster response, unemployment and poverty. It is unfortunate that most Americans have such a limited knowledge of history that we seem fated to relearn important lessons every 80 years or so.

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Monte Sahlin is chairman of the board for the Center for Creative Ministry, a research organization and resource center helping pastors, congregations and other organizations understand new generations and how to engage with them. He is also chairman of the board for the Center for Metropolitan Ministry, a "think tank" and training organization based on the campus of Washington Adventist University in Washington, DC, as well as an adjunct faculty member at the Campolo Graduate School at Eastern University in Philadelphia and in the DMin program at Andrews University. In addition, he serves on the steering committee of the Cooperative Congregational Studies Partnership, a coalition of researchers from more than 40 denominations and faiths who produce the Faith Community Today (FACT) research.

Sahlin is an ordained pastor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, currently serving in the Ohio Conference of the denomination.  He is the author of 20 books, 56 research monographs and hundreds of magazine articles. His most recent book is entitled "Mission in Metropolis." Others currently available are "Ministries of Compassion," "One Minute Witness," "Understanding Your Community," "Trends, Attitudes and Opinions" and "Adventist Congregations Today." In 2005, he coauthored with Harold Lee, "Brad: Visionary, Spiritual Leadership," a history and evaluation of the career of Charles Bradford, the first African American to serve as president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America.

This article was originally posted on his blog at MonteSahlin.com.

 

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