In Washington, there is a great and necessary dialogue about the national debt and the way the federal government spends money. I fully support this long-overdue effort to make our government more efficient and hopefully effective at the same time. But cutting with a wide stroke can be dangerous, and I urge legislators to do the hard work and look very closely at who will be affected.
This brings us to the Community Development Block Grant program. This program represents a practice that I believe many on either side of the aisle can get behind. Federal dollars aren't blindly thrown from Washington at federal offices or programs. The federal government actually recognizes, with this program, that we know better than they do. What a concept. Washington sends federal dollars to us, right here in our own communities, and empowers municipalities to use them as they see fit.
Around the country, and right here in Oak Park, local boards identify their communities' greatest needs and match dollars with the local organizations that are best serving those needs. It's direct, it's focused, it's accountable. I am the longest-serving member currently sitting on the Oak Park commission that oversees the distribution of these dollars, and am speaking for myself in this letter, not for the commission.
CDBG dollars can be used to fund local community development activities such as affordable housing, anti-poverty programs and infrastructure development. In Oak Park, we use these dollars for all of the above to make our community better, and to serve our neighbors.
CDBG dollars have found themselves in severe danger this year, with possibly as much as a 50-percent cut. As a line in the massive federal budget, it may seem simple enough to cut. But when you get off the page and get involved in your community at the local level, you see the faces of those who rely on this program. The money Oak Park gets serves the poor, the sick, the disabled, the homeless. And those categories are far from mutually exclusive, as many of our wonderful community volunteers and organizations know all too well.
This money is for rent support, so a mother and child facing homelessness will never actually know it. This money is for food assistance for those suffering from HIV. This money is for sanitary and universally accessible living conditions for seniors. This money keeps domestic abuse hotlines open. This money literally means more beds, in more shelters, on more nights.
By cutting CDBG funding, Washington is not cutting a faceless, federal bureaucracy serving people we'll never know or see. It risks taking food and shelter from struggling Oak Parkers — the person in line behind you at the grocery store, the person next to you at the bus stop, the person whose kid is friends with your kid at one of our great schools. Tough choices are just that: tough. But they can't be made without first understanding who is being impacted. CDBG helps Oak Parkers serve Oak Parkers.
This crucial funding is given to us because the federal government recognizes that we know better. So trust me when I say that we do know better, and we need this funding.
Mark Benson is an Oak Park resident and the longest-serving member of the village commission that oversees the distribution of Community Development Block Grant dollars.