BOSTON (SHNS) – The state’s 23 community action agencies pressed for about a decade to secure more dedicated funding from the state, pitching their work as a crucial way to help vulnerable Bay Staters navigate anything from job training to housing insecurity.
And after Gov. Maura Healey this month vetoed the latest $7.7 million tranche of funding from the fiscal 2024 state budget, leaders of those organizations are now sounding the alarm that they will need to rein in antipoverty services.
The Community Action Agency of Somerville will lose about half of its community organizing budget, money that the organization had used to educate renters about their rights, advocate for improved living conditions, and successfully press the city to expand a municipal eviction moratorium during the pandemic.
David Gibbs, CAAS’s executive director, and Nicole Eigbrett, its director of community organizing, said they might need to lay off staff if they cannot make up the lost state support through private fundraising.
“Losing the staffing is going to be disastrous for the program because organizers kind of multiply their impact through the network of relationships that we can build,” Eigbrett said. “If one organizer is capable of educating 10 tenants on their rights, those 10 tenants will be able to reach 10 more neighbors and so on and so forth. The work that we’ve been doing has both material and intangible impacts.”
Community action agencies receive funding from a variety of sources. A bit less than two-thirds of their resources come from the federal government, and roughly a third comes from the state via a variety of pathways, according to Joe Diamond, executive director of the Mass. Association for Community Action, or MASSCAP.
Since fiscal 2021 — the first full spending cycle during the public health emergency — Beacon Hill has included additional money in the annual state budget to provide community action agencies with operational grants.
The money included in the budget served as “the most flexible resource that the community action agencies receive,” Diamond said, giving agency leaders bandwidth to invest in better programming as they saw fit.
“It supports our ability to address needs that existed long before COVID and needs that persist today, some of which are exacerbated, like the need for food security,” he said. “Our agencies use this resource to help expand their ability to provide more and more food to the people that we serve, to expand their reach geographically, to provide housing assistance. Some agencies have used it to expand and continue mental health services, and certainly to support job readiness across the state.”
For many agencies, the funding in the annual state budget was “a significant part of their budgets,” Diamond said.
Legislative negotiators agreed to direct another $7.68 million toward that end in their proposed fiscal 2024 budget, but Healey used her veto pen to reduce the line item to zero, writing that “its original purpose was specifically tied to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Administration officials argue that the funding was never meant to be permanent and that they now need to reevaluate emergency-era spending, which surged in many areas to respond to the crisis. They also pointed to other areas of the budget that focus on supporting lower-income families, such as a 27 percent increase to the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program and $25 million in permanent food security infrastructure grants.
“Our administration is proud to have signed a budget that invests in critical programs that support low-income families in Massachusetts,” said Healey spokesperson Karissa Hand. “Community action agencies perform important services for our communities, and we will continue to support their mission.”
Healey also cut $1 million from another line item offering grants to Head Start programs that some community action agencies such as CAAS run, dropping it down to $16.5 million.
Altogether, Healey cut about $205 million in proposed spending from the $56 billion budget. She also struck an outside section that would have drawn down $205 million in one-time dollars for use in the annual budget. Tax revenues fell short of projections in fiscal 2023, and it’s not clear whether Beacon Hill officials will need to tap into the state’s significant one-time reserves to close any gap.
But for those on the ground at community action agencies, the official arguments do not entirely add up.
“I don’t understand a Democratic governor choosing to make that call,” Gibbs said. “If you’re going to try to balance the budget, you don’t do it on the backs of the people who need it the most. There are plenty of state spending lines that are very helpful to business, that are very helpful to wealthy cities and suburbs. I’m sure the governor could find $200 million there if she needed to. To take it away from programs that are directly supporting people who are in desperate need, who are in poverty, just makes no sense.”
Diamond and Gibbs both said a formal campaign to secure the line-item funding for agencies began more than a decade ago, well before the pandemic prompted lawmakers to approve the investment.
“That was the culmination of years of legislative activity. I don’t think that it’s fair to say that it was just because of COVID, and the programs that we’ve instituted using that money are not solely in response to COVID,” Gibbs said. “Community action has been underfunded in relation to the size of the problem of poverty for decades, and this is funding that allowed us to do things that we should have been doing, could have been doing, for years.”
“It just seems very contradictory as well to her mission and aim of ensuring food access and security because those are the very families that our agency and the others across the Massachusetts community action network serve,” Eigbrett added. “It really does feel like a slap in the face to our agency and our fellow agencies, who really stepped up during the worst of the pandemic to make sure our lowest-income residents were not simply forgotten.”
Community action agency leaders hope they can convince Democrats who control the House and Senate to override Healey’s veto and restore their funding.
Legislative leaders have not indicated override plans, and lawmakers are on an extended break from major business that’s expected to last into September.
Sen. Patricia Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, said she was “disappointed to see these changes come from the Governor.” The elimination of community action agency operating and outreach funds in the budget will “harm critical programs across the Commonwealth,” she said.
“This line item is not a ‘COVID-era’ item, as indicated in the Governor’s veto; Community Action Agencies have been advocating for these programs and funds since well before the pandemic,” Jehlen said in a statement. “The needs these funds serve have only worsened since the pandemic, and while the public health emergency is generally viewed to be over, the economic impacts are still ravaging families in need.”