September 11, 2012 - National Association for State Community Services Programs

September 11, 2012

Atlanta, Georgia

National Association for State Community Services Programs

Thank you to Tim Warfield, Bill Brand, and all of the board and staff of NASCSP for inviting me here today. 

I appreciate our colleague Robert Adams of the Department of Energy for being here to talk about the Weatherization Assistance Program.

On behalf of President Obama and Secretary Sebelius, I thank you for your commitment as State administrators and program managers. 

We appreciate the hard work that all of you do as leaders in State systems that administer the Community Services Block Grant—or CSBG, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program—or LIHEAP, and other key programs such as the Weatherization Assistance Program that make such a tangible difference in the lives of low income people across the country. 

I also want to acknowledge that today—September 11th—is such an important day in our country’s history.

This is a day for all of us remember the many who died in the September 11 attacks and recommit ourselves as public servants to making our country and our communities strong and resilient. 

I know that many of you were at last year’s NASCSP conference where I announced that Jeannie Chaffin would be the new Director of the Office of Community Services, which oversees the Community Services Block Grant. 

Jeannie sends her warmest greetings. 

She wishes she could join you today, but as you may know, our government ethics rules, and a pledge made under this administration, strictly limit our direct involvement in matters involving former employers for a period of two years.

This recusal process can be frustrating, but serves an important purpose and reminds us as government officials we must uphold the highest standards of ethics in all that we do.  

I can tell you that Jeannie has brought an important new perspective to the OCS Director’s role based on her State and NASCSP experience, and has been effective at strengthening the focus and effectiveness of OCS.

I know that Seth Hassett, Brandy RayNor, Anita Wright and others from OCS who work with states in the OCS Division of State Assistance are here today and will be here with you during the remainder of the conference. 

Jeannie, Seth and all of the Federal staff have been very busy this year doing everything they can to strengthen operations in the Community Services Block Grant and we expect the fall and winter to be equally active.

Seth and his team will be sharing more with you during this conference. In the next few weeks, OCS will be announcing the grantees for new Centers of Excellence that will be involved in a national effort to create the next generation of performance management tools and protocols for CSBG. 

OCS will also be announcing a new round of regional performance grants involving state associations of Community Action Agencies.

These regional performance grantees are organized based on the 10 ACF regions.  Here in the Southeastern region, we made the decision this year to fund two grantees in order to assure appropriate focus on the eight states in this region.

As you know, the President’s Fiscal year 2012 and 2013 budgets for CSBG included proposed reductions and called for some significant changes in the way we do business. 

While we did not end up with large reductions in FY 2012—and we still don’t have a final budget for next year—ACF has accepted the challenge of revitalizing CSBG.

Central to revitalizing CSBG are ACF efforts to institute a set of core federal standards—to be augmented by the states—that will be used to measure the performance of local agencies. 

If a CSBG agency fails to meet the standards, the state would immediately conduct an open competition to replace that entity serving the affected community.

Congress will need to be involved in this process, but we are not waiting to proceed with developing standards. This is not just a process that will apply to local agencies.  High standards for local agencies also require high standards of administration, monitoring and technical assistance in states.   

High standards also need to apply to the Federal government. 

This year, OCS announced participation of the CSBG and LIHEAP programs in the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI) survey.

The ACSI report tracks scores on customer satisfaction for over 230 private sector companies and more than 100 federal and local government services. These results are published annually in the Wall Street Journal.

In addition to the satisfaction scores, the study provides an analysis of the ratings and helps agencies prioritize areas for action.

As state administrators, we really want your input in that survey.  Jeannie asked me to remind all of you to submit your input in the survey if you have not already. ACF is committed to improving our customer service and helping our partners to be as effective as possible.

We are anticipating an active year with our two Centers of Excellence and with you as state administrators playing a pivotal role. 

We understand that states are our direct grantees and our continuing relationship with you is critical. 

I know that you as State administrators can sometimes feel caught in the middle in these budget processes, awaiting final budget action and uncertain of the ultimate success of program reform efforts. I’ve been there.  Believe me, I know it is tough.

State and Community Action Agencies both help carry a legacy of important community efforts dating back to the initial war on poverty, but sometimes that legacy itself is seen as part of the problem.  

The thinking goes that a program that has a long legacy cannot also be innovative and forward thinking.

Over the last two years, I and other ACF leaders have visited many local CSBG grant recipients… nonprofit Community Action Agencies and public agencies. I have seen first-hand that the spirit of innovation and meaningful involvement of low-income people in the programs that affect them is alive and well.

The work you and your partners at the community level do is impressive and your dedication to serving the neediest among us has been an inspiration.

The War on Poverty is almost 50 years old and yet you don’t have to go far to find poverty’s devastating effects in our cities, suburbs and in rural America. And poverty is not just any enemy. It is perhaps the most evil you could encounter.

You cannot see poverty. Oh, you can see its soul-crushing effects, but you cannot see it and confront it as you would a mortal enemy. What’s worse is that generation after generation, poverty steals from parents their hope and from children their future. Facing the critical and pressing challenges of poverty for our nation’s children and families, a discussion of new standards and performance measures can seem like a distraction. 

However, I would say that—done right—our focus on performance has never been more important to the long-term success of our efforts.  

How else will we demonstrate that we are having an impact when so much else around us is changing? When we know that the causes and effects of poverty are so deeply entrenched?

Our ongoing challenge is to take what you all know about what works in meeting complex needs, and make sure we have the performance systems in place to increase efforts that work and end efforts that don’t. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty we can expect some to question its effectiveness.  We have made policy gains that did contribute to reduced poverty levels. There has also been progress since the 1960s when the economy was thriving and poverty numbers went down. 

Though our economy has been rocked and we continue to face unacceptable levels of unemployment, the efforts of your President to hold this country together have been many and they have worked.

I recently read an article in the New York Times Magazine by journalist and author Paul Tough. In that article Paul describes in great detail poverty’s effect on several families living in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood.

If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to do so. In his article, Paul writes that there’s an idea out there that President Obama hasn’t done much for poor people in this country. He goes on to say, and I agree, that by some measures, President Obama has done more than any other recent president.

As former President Clinton recently described, President Obama put a floor under the crash. When the Great Recession came along it was following one of the country’s great boom times. It came at a time when many in this country were beginning to believe that high returns and fast growing incomes were here to stay and prosperity was for anyone willing to hold down a job.

The misplaced optimism was, I believe, predicated upon one of poverty’s greatest allies….greed. Rare is the boom in this or any other country that isn’t, at some point or another, fueled by speculation and greed. Good, sound economic growth is sustainable. …Until greed comes along.

And what happens at that point, is the have not’s become further and further marginalized.

Then the crash comes and those living in society’s margins are the most profoundly affected.   They are the first to feel the crash and the last to experience the recovery. From 1960 to 1968, the share of African Americans living below the poverty line fell from 55 percent to 27 percent.  There was dramatic progress during the peak years of the War on Poverty. 

Yet today, African American poverty rates remain well above those of whites. African Americans are three times more likely than non-Hispanic whites to live below the poverty line. This is also the case for Hispanics. Though the numbers are slightly better, they too are nearly three times as likely to live in poverty as whites.

And while the nation has made enormous progress in reducing poverty rates among the elderly, children remain the poorest age group. And very young children have the highest poverty rates among all children.

So, when you start to grasp just who poverty affects the most and how, you can finally begin to create programs and programming that addresses not only a person’s individual needs, but those of an entire community.

That’s why I stand before you today optimistic that we will persevere and that we are better positioned today to pursue successful strategies that allow all Americans to fulfill their full potential and achieve their American Dream. 

For so many people and families in distressed communities across the country, the pathway to self-sufficiency is not a simple story. The journey requires personal determination and the commitment and help of organizations like Community Action that provide a rich mix of supports, coming from a variety of sources, to address healthcare needs, housing, employment assistance, and the development of new skills.
Community Action Agencies have a long tradition of helping integrate the variety of support needed to address complex needs, and this has led to countless inspiring individual success stories across the country.

Your commitment is true and unwavering, but it is your compassion that sets the Community Action Agencies apart. For “True Compassion,” as Doctor King said, “is more than flinging a coin to a beggar, it is not haphazard and superficial.”

Your compassion is seen in your organization, in your comprehensive approaches to poverty reduction, and in your efforts to work together to assure that everyone involved in these anti-poverty efforts is committed to revitalizing the legacy of community action to meet new challenges in a global economy.

You are such an important partner for the federal, state and local colleagues you work with every day. Without compassion we would not be able to effectively combat poverty’s devastating effects on not just the psyche but the brain itself. The less compassionate will look to those living in squalor and blame them for their lot.

They see the poor as something else, something apart from themselves and as someone else’s problem. You recognize that being poor is oftentimes a condition that can’t or couldn’t be avoided. And once you’re there, escape without great assistance is rare. And yet, you work day-in, day-out to help communities pave roads to prosperity. 

In the last few years, you have helped create and save jobs for thousands of Americans through CSBG, early Head Start, Weatherization Assistance, and so many other programs.

To understand the implementation of the Recovery Act—and the challenges for CSBG—ACF’s Office of Community Services commissioned an evaluation by the Urban Institute. 

It is on their website, and I encourage you to look at it. Among other findings, the study showed how state administrators stepped up to increase oversight without additional administrative resources and showed how many local agencies used resources to implement new and innovative service approaches.

The Recovery Act really doesn’t get the credit it deserves for forestalling the Great Recession in its tracks. Were it not for the Recovery Act, millions more Americans, White, Black, Latino and Asian would have slipped into poverty.

Moreover, by insisting that stimulus measures be directed to poor families in the form of cash assistance, unemployment insurance and SNAP benefits, more money was pumped into the economy in actual cash transactions than could ever come from increased or prolonged tax cuts.

Paul Tough’s article documents this well as have many other recent articles. And the people who were receiving this assistance weren’t just the poorest of the poor; they were also the new poor.

So, when you hear that the number of people living in poverty is nearly the same as when the Great Society began, remember that the Great Recession has pushed millions of families to the brink, where most thought they’d never find themselves, and beyond.

So there are many millions of the newly poor being counted. Conversely, there are many millions who are not being counted among the impoverished because of the very programs I just mentioned.

As important as temporary assistance to needy families, unemployment insurance, SNAP benefits and Medicaid expansion have been, they are not the whole picture, as you know well.  This administration is committed to creating educational opportunities in our poorest communities and reforms where needed.  ACF is doing its part to promote better education outcomes for poor children. 

At Head Start we are instituting many reforms to make an already strong and integral component of the war on poverty even stronger and more responsive to local community needs. We are now demanding that Head Start providers perform up to new standards, and putting up for competition the contracts of those that can’t. We are also allowing communities to experiment with how they apply for Head Start and Early Start funding and allowing them to combine these programs in a Birth-to-Five model that is more comprehensive in its approach to each child’s educational development.

But education reform isn’t enough either. You have to have a real focus on the family again. Parents have to be provided supports. Fathers and mothers in our poorest communities need our help and our compassion as well.

We have to find ways to keep parents engaged. The science is clear, when both parents are involved in a child’s life that child’s chances of economic, educational and social success are greatly increased. And of course, the poor must have access to health care.

Without it the rest of the poverty fighting machine grinds to a halt. A sick man or woman cannot work, attend educational or technical training and cannot provide the love and attention their children need.

It’s that simple. You see, it’s not simply a matter of saying, as a country, that we provide cash assistance or food benefits, or unemployment compensation, or educational supports or marriage supports or access to health care….

We have to be able to provide them all, community-wide, in community after community until we no longer see….

46.2 million People living in poverty in America….

Until we no longer see 1 in 5 American children living in poverty…..

Until we no longer see a Gross Domestic Product that can double in 30 years without a corresponding decrease in poverty….

The last number is remarkable in that even when our economy is strong and growing, which it essentially has since 1980, poverty has remained more or less the same.

In other words, economic growth, will not necessarily trickle down to those not already participating in the economy.

Another thing I think we should recognize fifty years into the War on Poverty is that poverty isn’t the same animal it was then. It is not just an evil and pervasive enemy, it is wily too.

There is good news though. Thanks in large part to your efforts, and specialized assistance programs, those living in poverty today are less likely to be malnourished or hungry.

And it’s easy to see that the poor have material possessions now that even middle class families may not have had when the Great Society was launched.

This is a well known and written about fact. As Paul Tough wrote in his article:

“While the material gap has diminished, a different kind of gap has opened between poor and middle-class Americans: a social gap.


“In the 1960s, most Americans, rich, middle-class and poor, were raising children in two-parent homes; they lived in relatively stable, mixed-income communities; they went to church in roughly similar numbers; their children often attended the same public schools.

“Today, those social factors all diverge sharply by class, and the class for which things have changed most starkly is the poor.

“Damien (a boy whose story he tells) may have a cellphone, but he has never met his father.”

It is devastating to read that…

…to hear that…

…and to know that it is all too true for far too many Americans.

And we know that cycle of social decay that follows…low performance in schools, high drop-out rates, high rates of teenage pregnancies, high incarceration rates, high rates of mental illness and substance abuse, and the list goes on….

But what we know now is that we can’t simply turn to that child, now a young man and say, “Get your act together. Your condition is due to your lack of will.  You should have made better choices.”

We now know that a lifetime of trauma, starting at an early age, has serious consequences on brain development, social development and mental health.

We must stop this cycle. We must not let another generation be sacrificed in the name of economic determinism.

For America to compete and have an economy built to last, we need everyone.  We can’t afford for anyone to be on the sidelines.  We need Damien and the young men like him to fulfill their potential.

We can do this. There is hope.

In that spirit I encourage each and every one of you to continue creating opportunities individual by individual, family by family, and community by community. 

I know you are doing this in a time of increased expectations and diminished resources.

I wish that I could tell you that the tight budget situation was going to change soon, but as you all know from following the news, the discussion across the government and across the country is about how we make the most positive impact with the limited resources available.

None of us can provide the right set of comprehensive coordinated services alone, but together we can meet the needs of many. 

We at ACF are aiming to integrate more fully at the Federal level and ask that you continue your efforts to integrate at the State level and to help your grantees do so at the local level.

I hope that all of you are active, involved and continue to work together to meet the true promise for all Americans.

President Obama is building the economy with a spirit of cooperation where we are all in this together. The Community Action approach was built upon that philosophy and is perfectly suited for the job.

Now, we can either play a game of political gotcha, or we can get things done that will help. 

The President’s proposals are putting Americans back to work.

They also give tax cuts to small business, and provide incentives for private companies to create jobs in America.

There are actions Congress could take today that would make a difference in the economy right now.

There is no mystery here about what needs to happen. 

In the meantime, our job is to continue to do our best every day… to help all those individuals and families like Damien’s.

And please remember these words from Reverend King: “The dignity of the individual will flourish when the decisions concerning his life are in his own hands, when he has the assurance that his income is stable and certain, and when he knows that he has the means to seek self-improvement.

“Personal conflicts between husband, wife, and children will diminish when the unjust measurement of human worth on a scale of dollars is eliminated.”

Today, as you know, is the 11th of September. The 11th anniversary of that moment, still too horrible to bear, when our sense of security as a nation was shattered, our sense of self shaken and our sense of common purpose challenged.

As our collective shock began to subside, it became abundantly clear that this nation was not through. We were dealt a tremendous blow. But we came back.

Just as the terrorists quickly learned, we are more than just a collection of buildings. We are way more than that.

As Vice President Joe Biden likes to say, “Never Bet Against America. Never Count Us Out.”

When it comes to re-energizing our communities and getting people back to work and into the jobs of the new economy, I want you to remember what President Obama has often said, that this is a nation of dreamers and doers.

In our dreams we see great things for ourselves, our families and our country.

As Thoreau said, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

It’s our job, yours and mine, to provide the tools, training and assistance to the people we serve so that they, too, believe that their dreams for a better life really are attainable.

We are nation of people who understand that by working together, we can overcome any obstacle, any foe and any challenge.

The challenges our communities face are many, but we are up to the task. I will not count them out and I will not bet against them.

I know that your presence here today means we stand together in that idea. I know that no matter how difficult the road ahead, the people you serve can count on you to bet on them to succeed, not against, to count them in and not out.

We will work together to make this their reality. I want to thank you all for your efforts. Thank you for coming. God Bless you and God Bless the United States of America.