We used to aspire to more

Peasant: “What happened to the war on poverty?”

King: “You lost.”

– The Wizard of Id

Anybody remember the Great Society?

One, two, three...okay, it was awhile back, a gen­e­ration or so calendar-wise and a veritable epoch ago politically. But a few throwbacks might still recall a time when Americans felt a collective desire to fix social ills – poverty, urban blight – and counted on the federal government to set the pace. It was President Lyndon Johnson who coined the phrase “Great Society” as he introduced domestic spending programs to help America reinvest in itself.

One of the last vestiges of that era has been in the margins of the news lately, as the Bush Administration pushes deep cuts to the Community Block Grant Development Fund program. Administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the program (actually signed into law by Gerald Ford in the mid-1970s) provides federal grants to build and rehabilitate affordable housing and redevelop struggling downtowns. It has traditionally appealed to both sides of the political aisle – to liberals because it provides tax support for communities, to conservatives because it puts spending decisions in the hands of the communities themselves – but that’s apparently no longer so.

We’d kind of resigned ourselves to the current administration’s decidedly non-domestic spending priorities these days, and the block grant cuts would have passed without much thought but for a recent appearance by Sen. Patty Murray in Bremerton, a community whose own revitalization has been largely fueled by these federal dollars. And if you don’t think this program matters to upscale Bainbridge as well, think again. We’re reminded that CDBG funds have helped fund every single new affordable apartment built or managed by the Housing Resources Board and the Kitsap County Consolidated Housing Authority (with a roster including Island Home, Village Home, Janet Westhome, the Rhododendron Apartments and 550 Madison), and provided funding for every subsidized unit that KCCHA has acquired – some 83 units of affordable housing created or saved in our community.

CDBG has provided money to staff Helpline House and Bainbridge Youth Services, and provided downpayment assistance to the nine families who built their own homes off Weaver Road through KCCHA’s Self Help program a few years back. It has provided funds to rehabilitate or weatherize homes owned by low-income families, and supported the Serenity House care facility at Lynwood Center. And provided operating expenses for the HRB. It pays for local homeownership counselors who help folks fix their credit, get out of debt, stave off foreclosure, learn how to manage money, and sometimes, even get into their own homes.

That is to say, federal block grants have done a lot for our own community as well as our neighbors across the bridge, to meet the most basic of needs: housing.

We should note that while Murray worked last month to restore the block grant cuts, the Senate voted along party lines and her effort failed. The funding could be revived in the House, but a Murray spokesperson says the prospect is unlikely in “a tough budget political year.”

Culture warriors like to grouse that we’ve become a coarser nation, but we’ll take coarser over meaner any day, and meaner is what we’re becoming when we no longer see putting Americans in decent homes a worthwhile goal. It’s almost hard to recall the time when we saw the problems in our own midst, and aspired to something better.

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