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Editorial: Rigorous oversight needed to protect block grants

One of the advantages of sending federal monies to communities to deal with poverty is that it empowers local leaders to allocate dollars where they are most useful. Interestingly, that approach also counts as one of the practice’s notable disadvantages.

Sometimes good intentions go awry. Other times, there are no good intentions – just political motivations to use public monies to fund self-interest.

Whatever the explanation, the Community Development Block Grant program has not always worked as well as it should. When that happens, intended beneficiaries – poor people living in poor areas – are harmed. It is a practice that must end. Otherwise, it will be much harder to defend against President Trump’s push to eliminate the program.

Trump once again left the $3.3 billion program out of his budget proposal. No surprise. He did the same thing in 2017. Congress restored the money and will likely do the same, again. Either way, the money is desperately needed, albeit not for middle-class wants and not for frittering away.

The program is already declining. Twenty-five years ago, it sent $30 million a year to Buffalo. Last year, the city received only about $13.7 million.

Buffalo is a poor city where 31 percent of residents and 47 percent of children live below the poverty level. So, Buffalo Common Council President Darius Pridgen is right in that the money benefits devastated communities – except when it doesn’t.

A Buffalo News report in 2003 documented mismanagement of funds by City Hall. A 2009 HUD report criticized a top-heavy bureaucracy that squandered CDBG funds in Buffalo. There are other examples.

Not only does the Trump administration doubt the program’s effectiveness, the Obama administration reduced the program. Housing and Urban Development studies since 1980 and more recently in 2013 found that the program has “not demonstrated a measurable impact on communities,” according to the agency’s spokeswoman.

These findings are problematic and disturbing for a program created in 1974 when then-President Richard Nixon requested that Congress combine federal and anti-poverty programs into block grants.

Still, the CDBG funding makes a difference, in Buffalo and elsewhere, from neighborhood revitalization to at-risk youth and senior citizen activities to quality-of-life issues. Street and water projects have benefited.

Poor communities shouldn’t have to worry about whether funding will come through. An important part of ensuring that it continues to flow is to make sure the money is being used as it is supposed to be.

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