Community Action Agencies Continue to Fight for Low-Income Families

Posted by Jim Gunshinan on March 11, 2011

I began my trip last week with a few days visiting my father, two sisters, and a bunch of nieces and nephews living just north of Washington DC in Maryland. Both my sisters have recently been treated for cancer, so it was very good to see them happy and healthy. My older sister lost her job around the time she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After her COBRA insurance ran out she was able to join the high-risk pool for health insurance provided through the state of Maryland.

My father is a former NASA engineer who retired early to take care of my Mom when she was dying of cancer. Dad has a pretty good retirement plan. In his working days, he traded the higher pay he could have received working for a private company with lower pay but solid government benefits. When you see the weather satellite images during the local news weather report, chances are my Dad was somehow responsible for the performance of the satellite.

From visiting my family I traveled just a few miles south and west for the mid-Winter meeting of the National Association of State and Community Services Providers (NASCSP). My Dad dropped me off at the hotel where the conference was held. As we made our way south along Wisconsin Avenue we passed what seemed to me like several blocks of newer buildings that are part of the National Institutes of Health.

I came to the same NASCSP meetings in 2009, right around the time that the Obama Administration was pushing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) through Congress. ARRA provided $5-billion to the DOE Weatherization Assistance Program. I described the atmosphere at the 2009 NASCSP meetings as like “drinking water from a fire hose.” Many community action agencies were preparing to double and triple their staff; buy equipment; and weatherize two or three times the number of homes they were used to weatherizing in half the time.

Their lives in 2010 were tough. Everyone from state attorney’s general and the federal Office of Management and Budget to the Department of Labor and the National Historic Preservation Program were looking over their shoulders demanding a level of accountability that would ruin most other agencies. There was some bad press about wasted funds and corruption and only back page, below the fold coverage of the successes. But the success of the weatherization program is clear. The program created more than 15,000 jobs in the last quarter of 2010. More than 330,000 homes were weatherized through ARRA so far, mostly in 2010. For every dollar spent almost two dollars has been returned to the economy in the form of savings on utility bills and increased economic activity. The health benefits of homes made healthy through weatherization for families and children is hard to calculate.

NASCSP and the Opportunity Council in Oregon announced a partnership with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on the Healthy Homes Project, which will determine the most cost effective way to make homes healthy as well as energy efficient. The performance metrics for healthy homes are:

• Less asthma attacks (meaning less visits to the emergency room where many low-income families go for basic health care)
• Less school days missed
• Lowered stress on caregivers

Now if only we can get the NIH involved….

Government works when it is directed towards helping its citizens live healthy and productive lives. The current House of Representatives wants to zero out the weatherization program funding and take back the ARRA funds that haven’t been spent, in order to “help balance the budget.” One of the reasons I hope that the weatherization community partners with the NIH to help create healthy homes for families and children is that the NIH does research that benefits wealthy white men—the kind of people who are the decision makers in Washington.

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