Sitting in his Louisville, Ky., office, Vern Rickert contemplates the sudden hole that’s been blown in his program’s budget by a decision made 600 miles away. Just weeks ago, Congress was set to give Father Maloney’s Boys’ Haven an earmark to buy an apartment for aging-out foster youth.
Instead, Rickert got hit with a ton of bricks.
He is among hundreds of youth agency administrators left scrambling after Congress did what seemed unthinkable: For fiscal 2006, it stripped earmarks – spending directives put in the budget by members of Congress for projects in their home districts – from the primary appropriations bill that covers youth programs.
The victims range from youth work’s largest national programs to local mom-and-pop organizations. Consistent earmark recipients left out in the cold this year include Communities in Schools ($6 million since 2002), L.A.’s Best ($650,000 since 2004) and Neighborhoods United Against Drugs ($408,000 since 2003).
For many government watchdogs, this is good news. Earmarks cut into money that could otherwise be available through competitive grants, which are widely considered to be a more equitable and cost-effective way to spend tax money.
Supporters of earmarks say the money goes to worthwhile programs, and that if Congress is going to fund projects that way, youth agencies should share in the largesse.
For better or worse, this so-called “pork” has been taking up larger chunks of the federal budget. Last year, nearly $696 million was earmarked for 1,363 youth-related projects, according to a database compiled by Youth Today.
Many agencies have come to rely on earmarks.
This year, however, earmarks were eliminated under the appropriations bill that funds the Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services (HHS). That bill covers more youth programs than any other.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees that funding, said the earmarks had to go, in order to make up most of some $1.4 billion that was cut from the appropriation by an overall 1 percent spending rescission.
“Had the $1 billion been spent on earmarks, we would have sustained intolerable cuts in programs such as . . . community health centers, community services block grant . . . and Head Start,” Specter said in a prepared statement. With cuts in those programs looming, he said, “it would be inappropriate, really unconscionable, to keep the earmarks this year.”
Will the move save money? Most earmarked projects are carved out of existing funds from a particular federal program, says Heritage Foundation budget analyst Brian Riedl. In that case, cutting an earmark wouldn’t necessarily mean the agency spends less money. It does mean there’s more money available for which other programs can compete.
Specter’s staff, however, says earmark proposals in the Labor/HHS/Education appropriation bill are tacked on after overall budget figures are set for those departments, which means the earmarks add to the spending. His office was unable to provide a list of eliminated earmarks that amount to the $1 billion in savings.
Layoffs and Scrambles
To see the impact on youth programs, consider just one member of Congress: U.S. Rep. Anne Northup (R-Ky.). She helped Boys’ Haven, a residential program for homeless and abused adolescent males, get $160,000 in earmarks from fiscal years 2002 through 2005 to operate its on-campus school. Northup thought she had secured about $200,000 more for the residential building in the fiscal 2006 budget, Rickert says.
Now, he says, “We’re going to have to find a way to reallocate funds, put the clamps down somewhere else.”
Northup also lost earmarks for the Louisville-based Plymouth Community & Renewal Center ($65,000 over the past three years) and Career Academy ($500,000 over the past two years). Each says it will need to come up with money by this summer or institute cutbacks.
Northup declined to comment.
In California, Randy Barth contemplates how to keep one of Orange County’s largest after-school providers growing after losing a $400,000 earmark through the Department of Education.
“We’ve learned not to count on earmarks, because it can be kind of volatile,” says Barth, CEO of the Santa Ana-based Think Together. “On the other hand, you need all the resources you can [get] to help kids. It’s a significant hit.”
Think Together says it runs after-school programs throughout Orange County on an annual budget of about $4.2 million.
Barth has already laid off three administrative staffers and decided not to fill a vacated senior operations post. He says that still leaves him with a $100,000 gap to fill privately by July.
It’s also not yet clear how many of the agencies will be able to make up for their lost earmarks through other federal funding pots, including competitive grants.
As programs scramble to secure money by summer, earmark players can only speculate about whether pork will soon return to the youth field’s most important appropriations bill. Rickert says Boys Haven will try again in 2007, but “everyone pretty much assumes it’s going to be pretty bleak” for the foreseeable future. “We’ll also try to turn toward the state for some earmarks now.”
At the Career Academy in Kentucky, Director Shirleen Sisney is less optimistic. “I’m hoping this is just a temporary thing with the earmarks. … But it does look like they’re going away forever.”
Administrators might find solace in the fact that the man ultimately responsible for the stripping of earmarks is Specter, who secures more earmarks for youth programs than any other member of Congress.
The removal of the earmarks has focused attention on “the blatant inadequacy of the allocation for this subcommittee,” Specter said in a statement. “This move is realistically calculated to have an impact on our next year’s allocation.”
Budget Cuts Will Hit Youth Programs
This year, losing only a little on the federal budget counts as a victory.
That’s because scores of funding streams that trickle down to youth services were either level-funded – a losing proposition because of inflation – or reduced. That will probably jeopardize the work of youth programs nationwide.
“It’s so egregious this year,” says Liz Meitner, vice president of government affairs for the Child Welfare League of America. “Who could have imagined how much would be cut?”
A look at congressional appropriations shows that just about every aspect of youth funding took a hit:
Corporation for National and Community Service: AmeriCorps gets $264.8 million for national and state grants, which fund volunteer stipends. That’s down from $290 million in 2005, and down 16 percent from a record high of $314 million in 2004. The $140 million for education awards is the same as last year.
National service supporters worry that the two-year dip in AmeriCorps might prompt a change in how the money is used. Because the cuts were made to the national and state grants, CNCS and state commissions might start putting more money toward volunteers who are part-time or get only the education awards. Those volunteers use less of the stipend money than do full-time volunteers.
“You have a slow decline over the last two years that makes it difficult to achieve the president’s goal of 75,000 members without changing the nature of who’s in Americorps,” says Gene Sofer, a lobbyist who represents nonprofits that rely onAmeriCorps volunteers. “It leads you inevitably away from full-time members and toward other volunteers.”
Department of Labor (DOL): Youth Training activities are funded at $950 million. That budget line, which funds the vast majority of DOL’s funding for youth job training programs, has been cut by $50 million since 2004. At the same time, youth employment is near a record low.
Job Corps funding increased slightly, to about $1.7 billion.
Department of Health and Human Services (HHS): The worst is probably yet to come for HHS, which will take the brunt of the slashes to entitlements when a budget reconciliation bill is passed. In the meantime, programs cut for 2006 include maternal and child health ($700 million, down 4 percent), the Adolescent Family Life abstinence programs ($13.1 million, down 67 percent), and the National Youth Sports program (eliminated).
The Compassion Capital Fund, which contains some of the money for first lady Laura Bush’s “Helping America’s Youth” campaign, was increased from $54.6 million to $65 million.
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD): Youthbuild gets $50 million, after almost being eliminated.
The president’s 2006 budget proposal recommended that Youthbuild, whose 200 programs put at-risk youth to work building affordable housing, be moved to the DOL’s Employment Training Administration. The program’s greatest champion, YouthBuild USA founder Dorothy Stoneman believes the only way to dramatically expand the program, historically funded
between $60 and $65 million, would be to put it in DOL.
But because of a questionable technicality – there was no legislation passed approving the move in departments – the House Appropriations Committee authorized neither HUD nor DOL to fund Youthbuild. The program was saved when it was written into the final conference report for HUD. But its funding had been reduced by about $10 million from last year.
Department of Justice: There isn’t one line in the 2006 DOJ funding that triggers alarm, says Miriam Rollin, who analyzes budget issues for Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. But she still finds the whole package depressing.
“In juvenile justice, we are talking about an area that went from $547 million in 2002 to in the $300 millions for 2006,” Rollin said. “That’s pretty substantial.”
Most galling to Rollin and other advocates is that while the overall funding has steadily dropped, the pork-laden funding for demonstration projects continues to rise. For several years, 100 percent of the money has been earmarked before it gets to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which would otherwise give out the money through competitive grants.
Some earmarked programs are probably worthy, Rollin said, but the process means that “the best-connected [agencies] to Capitol Hill get the money. It’s sad that [Congress] chooses to spend so much of an already paltry amount on noncompetitive” funding.
Administrative cuts to OJJDP are also alarming, analysts say. “It’s down to $700,000 from $3 million last year,” said Morna Murray of the Children’s Defense Fund. “Those are cuts to actually operating OJJDP, which is really concerning.”
Department of Education: Safe and Drug- Free Schools gets $568.8 million, well above the president’s proposal of $317 million, but down 15 percent from last year. The Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools includes funding for mentoring programs ($48.8 million for 2006) and the Carol White Physical Education Program, which funds fitness programs for after-school programs and school districts ($72.6 million).