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Spending Cuts To Affect Community Action Committees' Ability To Help Poor

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As the White House and Congress talk about cutting federal spending, groups in Virginia that work with the poor say those cuts will mean big problems for their clients.

One-forth of 1 percent doesn’t sound like much. At $4 a gallon, that’s a penny's worth of gas.

One-forth of 1 percent of the federal budget though, is no small sum to people like Jeffrey Owens. Owens is in his mid-40s. He looks ready for work, in his ball cap, a T-shirt with a Teamsters' logo, and blue jeans. He's been applying for jobs, but has been unsuccessful.

“I remember myself, used to be a lot of jobs out there, but ain’t no more now,” he says.

And like many people who come to the Pulaski office of the New River Community Action, he has a big electric bill he can't pay.

“If you get just so much a month, it's hard,” he says.

More than a thousand community action agencies, including 32 in Virginia, have been one of the main ways federal, state and local governments help those living in poverty, through a variety of programs – emergency assistance, head start, homeless intervention.

At New River Community Action in Radford, Kim Mathews tries to help people who, because they're out of work or have piled-up medical bills, are way behind on rent or home payments. But government funds to administer these programs are getting tight, and agencies are cutting back, according to Terry Smusz, executive director of New River Community Action.

“We will be making significant cuts… having to cut back,” says Mathews.

The most recent worry is President Obama's plan to cut community service funding in half—from $700 million to $350 million. And starting in 2012, those block grants would be competitive. Smusz says that would really hurt agencies like hers, compared to those in the state's main urban areas.

Community action supporters say it's not that money and food for the poor won't be there anymore. The food pantry that agency staffer Rhonda Rhoten shows off at the Christiansburg office has shelves from floor to ceiling stocked with canned goods. Donations from business, churches and individuals make up almost all of the agency's emergency assistance aid. But she says it won’t get to people who need it without public dollars.

Jeffrey Owens has heard government leaders say the country is broke and federal spending has to be cut.

“They're trying to make it harder,” he says. “Where are these people going to go?”

He and about 250,000 other Virginians that community action agencies help each year are hoping the cuts won’t come from that one-fourth of the 1 percent of the federal budget.


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