There are two good things to say about the sequester, the federal government’s obligation to cut 8 percent from the budgets of all federal programs.
First, the cuts and the threat of more to come can be a call to action. It can pull those less inclined to activism out of their hunker down and cope with it stance. Second, the shared predicament presents an opportunity for new alliances. While tight budgets often exacerbate competition across policy silos, the indiscriminating blade of the sequestration knife exposes common vulnerabilities that can inspire collective efforts.
The Massachusetts Family Self-Sufficiency Coordinators’ Group discusses budget cuts. Photo by Heather Birchall
The sequester could spark a quest to mobilize new activists and engage new allies.
I saw the beginning of such a quest at a meeting of the Massachusetts Family Self-Sufficiency Coordinators’ Group last week.
This is a group of front-line practitioners who operate HUD’s Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program in over 40 housing authorities across the state. The FSS program seeks to promote career development and asset building among recipients of federal housing subsidies through case management support and a personalized savings account linked to increased earnings.
The staffers who attend the group’s bi-monthly meetings don’t fit the stereotype of street-level bureaucrats. From their office cubicles, they do the best they can to support each participant’s journey to economic self-sufficiency. But they also get out of their cubicles and join with other FSS practitioners to learn about new ways to help their clients and to improve the program itself.
In the past, the group secured child care subsidies for FSS clients who would not otherwise have qualified for assistance and they created an award-winning loan program to meet the credit needs of FSS families. The group also conveys its concerns to the American Association of Service Coordinators which brings their message to policymakers in Washington.
The sequester is sparking their next quest. They’re speaking up about the need for more resources and they’re seeking partners to boost their impact.
The group dedicated its meeting on May 30 to their concerns about the impact of sequestration on the FSS program. The historic cuts to the Housing Choice Voucher Program that took effect in March will likely force state and local housing agencies to reduce the number of low-income families receiving housing subsidies by as many as 140,000 by early 2014. Members of the group are also beginning to see the effects of tightened budgets on staffing needs and office supplies. Moreover, they are concerned about the implications of FY 2014 budget proposals for the stability of FSS program funding.
The group invited Rep. Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) to the meeting to urge him to endorse continued funding for the program. They equipped him with a packet of explanations of the FSS program and quotations from program participants about how the program was instrumental to completing training programs and college degrees, finding better jobs, and purchasing homes.
The FSS staffers spoke up. But they soon discovered that Capuano was already convinced of the value of the program. He stressed that he and many other Massachusetts elected officials already support expanding rather than cutting budgets for affordable housing and social services.
The discussion turned to strategies for reaching out to elected officials who need more persuading about the consequences of the cuts. They talked about expanding their agenda to include the impact on job training, education, child care, transportation, and other services FSS participants need to achieve their self-sufficiency goals. And they recognized program participants as potential voters with influence to steer the public discourse.
By the end of the meeting, the group had launched a quest for partners to expand their influence.
On the top of their list is the prospect of joining with community colleges to make higher education a more feasible opportunity for working parents. Community colleges can create specialized work study programs so students can spend more time learning. FSS staff can select participants who are committed to graduating and offer them the supports to ensure their success.
Other potential allies are community-based organizations and coalitions. FSS focuses on empowering people in their personal lives. Connecting participants with community organizers can also empower them as citizens who fight for real opportunities for all families to thrive.
So, what’s your quest? Is it time to speak up to advocate, not only for your program, but for the other programs you depend on for its success? Are there new allies to engage as partners in advocacy? How about the creation of novel approaches to doing more with scarce resources?
Those who staff the front-lines of those programs may be up for joining you in the quest.