Nashville Social Services Brace for Debt Deal Drought



It's over — sort of.

After months of Capitol Hill grandstanding that further debased an already debauched national political discourse, the Great Debt Debate is (for now) at an end.

President Barack Obama this afternoon signed into law the House-tested (269-161), Senate-approved (74-26) debt ceiling increase that raises the nation's borrowing capacity by $400 billion, institutes $917 billion in spending cuts over 10 years via discretionary spending caps, and does virtually nothing to reign in the gluttonous salaries of the very hedge fund managers and Wall Street tycoons whose astronomical tax cuts comprise the bulk of the very budget deficit so popular with elected officials of the Tea Party persuasion.

Providing a seal of approval to this slash-and-burn stratagem toward fiscal solvency is none other than Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander, who offered the following wisdom today in a speech on the Senate floor (bold emphasis added):

Finally, Washington is taking some responsibility for years of spending money we don’t have. At a time when the federal government is borrowing 40 cents of every dollar it spends, this is a welcome change in behavior that I am glad to support. Make no mistake. This is a change in behavior—from spend, spend, spend to cut, cut, cut.

Echoing his Senate colleague, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper said in a press release that he supports "the Budget Control Act because it protects America from default and starts cutting unnecessary spending." He adds that "much more needs to be done but Congress has finally stopped bickering and started solving our deficit problems.”

Per the deal struck by party leaders, a second round of cut-cut-cuts ($1.5 trillion) has yet to be specified, leaving the fate of so-called entitlement programs (e.g. Medicare, Medicaid, Community Development Block Grants, etc.) to be determined by a "Super Committee," comprised of six Republicans, six Democrats and whatever Superfriends happen to be on hand. (Probably Aquaman.) What's more, it'll probably cost the already ailing economy at least a million more jobs, but hey: If it burns, that means it's working!

Despite the lack of specificity, Nashville's social services providers — and by proxy their working-class clientele — are bracing for a major funding drought.

"We're watching," says Lisa McCrady, spokeswoman for the Nashville Metropolitan Action Commission, which provides myriad programs to low-income and elderly residents. "And we're listening, and what we're hearing is that our community development services block grant is going to be cut in half," from its current level of $800,000 down to $400,000.

That block grant money supports the commission's GED and college prep programs, rent and mortgage assistance, supplemental property-tax payments and utility deposits for those recovering from homelessness, to name a few.

"I had to turn the TV down a moment ago," McCrady says of the coverage of the grim debt deal, adding that the commission is already aware that their $7 million in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program will be reduced to its base amount of $2 million, with further details to be ironed out by Aquaman & Co. this fall.

Julie Oaks, public information officer for the Metro Development and Housing Authority, says the impending cuts are just the latest round of dwindling federal assistance, which accounts for roughly 90 percent of MDHA's funding. That will force tough choices for the agency.

"We've already had cuts to public housing and rental assistance programs. We laid off eight employees earlier this year, in our community development division," Oaks tells the Scene, "so further cuts will mean some really hard decisions. Either we'll be able to serve less people, or provide a lower level of service for people who receive benefits through MDHA."

That means MDHA will have fewer funds to maintain their properties and depress the economic buoyancy of some 5,800 residents supported by rental assistance.

Oaks adds that MDHA hasn't accepted any new Section 8 vouchers since 2008, and 670 individuals are still on the waiting list. Although the agency would like to switch to a lottery program to help reduce that number to zero, a lack of resources has made that an impossibility.

In terms of the debt deal's effect on health care, Medicare and Medicaid are spared for the moment. So expect Nashville's current revenue levels for federal programs — for example, $6,170,900 from Health and Human Services, the USDA and Medicare — to shrink small enough to drown in a Norquist bathtub.

"All we can do is wait and see," says Oaks, "and prepare for the worst."

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