By Jeannie L. Chaffin, Director, Office of Community Services
With the investments proposed in the fiscal year 2016 Budget, programs within ACF’s Office of Community Services (OCS) are well positioned to support the President’s commitment to help working families afford the cornerstones of economic security: child care, college, health care, a home and retirement. OCS’s programs provide a wide array of supports and services that promote mobility and create opportunity, through asset development; employment and education supports; housing and the reduction of home energy burden; by responding to other emergencies that destabilize families; and by helping build and strengthen communities. Across OCS’s programs, there are exciting proposals that strengthen accountability and performance management, promote mobility and opportunity, foster innovation and expand OCS’s capacity to conduct research and evaluation.
Strengthening Accountability and Performance: We could not be more pleased that the 2016 Budget proposes $674 million for the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG), the same level as the enacted 2015 budget level. Previous Administration budgets called for reform and funding reductions for CSBG, however this budget maintains funding while supporting implementation of ongoing reforms. This budget reflects the CSBG Network’s substantial progress in strengthening performance management. Over the last several years, ACF and its CSBG Network partners have developed a framework to ensure the efficiency and effectiveness of the Network at all levels – including local Community Action Agencies, state CSBG offices, and OCS. We in OCS thank the Network for the time and energy invested in this work. This is a historic moment in time for CSBG and Community Action Agencies.
The 2016 Budget also proposes supports to OCS’s efforts to strengthen accountability and performance in the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). OCS appreciates the commitment of the LIHEAP Performance Measures Implementation Work Group, which consists of state LIHEAP Directors and ACF staff. The PMIWG recommended that ACF require certain baseline performance measures to be reported on by all LIHEAP state grantees, and ensured a collaborative selection process to choose four new developmental measures.
Promoting Mobility and Opportunity: The Administration’s 2016 Budget proposal includes a new initiative— the Upward Mobility Project— which aims to promote opportunity and reduce poverty in ten communities nationwide. The budget proposes $1.5 billion over five years for the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) to support this effort. The proposal offers states and localities more flexibility in administering certain federal funds, including CSBG, SSBG, and others at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. This proposal increases the Administration’s place-based efforts. We know from recent research that the opportunities and stressors surrounding children in the community where they grow up can have deep and lasting impacts on educational and economic outcomes. We all lose when young people do not get a fair shot. The Upward Mobility Project proposes to help communities implement holistic solutions to expand opportunity in our Nation’s most vulnerable communities. CSBG, along with the 1,100 Community Action Agencies, have a long history of seeking local solutions to local poverty conditions.
Fostering Innovation: The LIHEAP request seeks level funding of nearly $3.4 billion and proposes innovative approaches to addressing the need for benefit payments. First, the request specifies a range of funding that states must transfer to weatherization activities, which will help invest in cost savings over the long-term while assisting with current utility bills. Second, a Utility Innovation Fund should stimulate new partnerships at the state and local levels, allowing for new solutions to reducing the home energy burden for our most vulnerable neighbors. Finally, the LIHEAP proposal seeks to increase the amount of funds ACF can use for REACH so that we can test different home energy assistance strategies and build evidence-based practices that can be incorporated by grantees in their regular LIHEAP.
The 2016 Budget also seeks to increase ACF’s ability to foster innovation in the Assets for Independence (AFI) demonstration program. The AFI request remains level at nearly $19 million, and we are proposing to use up to 30 percent of AFI funds to create an Asset Innovation Fund. This Fund would allow the federal government to test research-driven asset-building models in areas such as child and youth savings accounts, asset building for underserved populations, and behavioral economics. AFI is an important platform for not only bringing individual development accounts to working families across the country, but also financial education, credit and debt counseling, access to federal tax credits, and other financial capability strategies.
Increasing Capacity for Research and Evaluation: Lastly, the President’s Budget proposes first-time, dedicated funding for research and evaluation of several OCS programs, including LIHEAP, CSBG and SSBG. Additionally, we seek to increase the ability to use AFI funds for research and evaluation, in order to ensure that we gain meaningful insights from the Asset Innovation Fund efforts. OCS has made great strides in strengthening performance management, however there is also a need to pursue research and evaluation on programs. In the challenging budget environment that exists, it is essential that we work to build the evidence base for all our programs. This will allow all of us – OCS, our grantees, and our partners – to be well-informed as we make future decisions about the most effective strategies and interventions to help families and communities reach their full potential.