Anti-poverty advocates worry about declining funds

Flagstaff, AZ – Anti-poverty groups have been bracing themselves since President Obama delivered his State of the Union speech in January. In it, he laid out his plan for reducing the deficit.

"I propose cuts to things I care deeply about, like community action programs."

The line shocked Wenda Meyer, who runs Coconino County's social service program, because President Obama worked with these kinds of programs as a community organizer. They're designed to help people out of poverty.

Meyer figured she'd have to deal with 10, 15, or maybe even 20 percent cut.

Then the president released the details in his budget a couple of weeks ago.

"And when it was 50, everybody was just stunned."

Coconino County receives around a million dollars annually to fight poverty. Meyer says losing that money could have devastating effect on the 6,000 people her agency helps each year. She says emergency assistance to pay utilities or rent can stave off the worst.

"Once you become homeless, or once you can't behind those crisis like getting you're electricity turned on, things do not go well."

A family tragedy brought Rosemary Salazar to Meyer's office. Ever since Salazar got laid off, she and her husband have been struggling to support themselves and their two children on his salary as a trainer at Target.

Then, last month, their neice's12-year-old son had a severe asthma attack. He stopped breathing and ended up on life support. The Salazars left for Phoenix as soon as they heard.

"We had to be there to support my niece. My husband practically raised her. He's more like a father figure to her so we had to be there."

After a week, the family made the painful decision to take him off life support. He died shortly after. The Salazars were gone two weeks. With no vacation or sick time to make up for the lost days at work,

"We fell behind on our bills, more than what we were. We're living paycheck to paycheck. That's why I'm here. We need the help."

A lot of people around northern Arizona need help right now. Chris Fetzer heads the Human and Community Services at the Northern Arizona Council of Governments. The agency serves Yavapai, Apache, and Navaho counties with programs tailored to a rural region.

"Some of the clients depend on wood stoves. It purchases wood from a local vendor, they deliver it, stack it, particularly helping those senior clients."

The president is also proposing a 3 billion dollar cut in the program to help low income families heat their homes.

Fetzer says the cuts come at time when more Arizonans than ever are struggling. Before the recession, one in seven Arizonans lived in poverty. Now, one in five do. Fetzer said demand for services is up 70 percent from three years ago.

"More than 50 percent of the clients were brand new to the program. They'd never been seen before. A huge cut when demand for services is so high is very alarming."

To make matters worse for Fetzer, President Obama wants to make the remaining funds available on a competitive basis, meaning Arizona could lose all its funding.

Cynthia Zwick, who runs the Arizona Community Action Association, says that would be devastating. She represents the 12 community action agencies throughout Arizona and she's part of a national network of agencies working together to gain the support of Congress.

"We believe that it is possible people will understand the impact and not make those cuts."

But Northern Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar doesn't believe President Obama's proposed cuts go far enough.

"We can't keep this up. We're going broke. If the problems are this magnitude now, wait till we go broke. Then everyone will be on [sic] the poor house."

He supports a House Republican plan to eliminate the programs entirely to help reduce the deficit, and he says he hasn't heard any constituents complain about it. In lieu of federal aid, he says

"It's going to be up to local communities to watch out for each other, help our neighbors and making sure that we have programs that we buy into as a community to help each other out."

Anti-poverty advocates say churches, food banks, and shelters in Northern Arizona are already seeing more people than they can help, so it's not clear where the support would come from.