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GAO Criticizes Federal Oversight of Block Grants

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The congressional watchdog agency is criticizing the Bush Administration's management of a popular anti-poverty program. The Government Accountability Office found serious shortcomings in the oversight of the program, which costs 630 million dollars. The GAO report comes as President Bush has proposed eliminating that program.

NPR's Elaine Korry reports.

ELAINE KORRY reporting:

If your country has Headstart, job training for the unemployed, Meals on Wheels for seniors, or home heating credits for low income residents, odds are good that a community action agency is running the program.

There are about 1,100 of these local anti-poverty groups nationwide, and they're funded through what are called community services block grants, federal dollars that are funneled through the states. The local programs get high marks, but in a stinging report by the GAO, the federal agency charged with monitoring them did not.

Representative GEORGE MILLER (Democrat, California): This is an Administration big on accountability, and GAO's telling them that they haven't been doing their oversight.

KORRY: Representative George Miller, a Democrat from California, is the ranking minority member of the Congressional committee that requested the GAO investigation. It's the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services to keep tabs on the block grant program, visiting states and issuing annual evaluations. But Marney Shaul, a director with the GAO, says there've been major failings.

Ms. MARNEY SHAUL (Government Accountability Office): I think that this is very serious. The fact that an office is unable to find records of its site visits, did not apparently keep these records, did not provide information to the states about what they learned in their site visits so the states could improve whatever they're doing. I think that's serious.

KORRY: Also troubling, Shaul says evaluators lacked important skills, such as financial analysis, to determine whether states were spending federal money wisely.

The problems were outlined in a letter yesterday to Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary for Children and Families. Several times NPR requested a response from Secretary Horn, but through a spokesman, he declined, saying he's still reviewing the report.

Congressman Miller notes that the programs themselves are not at fault. But he wonders if the shortcomings of oversight are tied to the Administration's desire to gut the program.

Representative MILLER: There's been no indication that anything's wrong with those programs, and our communities don't want to see this federal money zeroed out at a time of growing need.

KORRY: The block grant program is relatively small, just 630 million dollars, but it's extremely popular with the states.

Mr. DAVID BRADLEY (Executive Director, National Community Action Foundation): I don't know of one governor saying we don't need the community services block grant funds.

KORRY: David Bradley is Executive Director of the National Community Action Foundation, an advocacy group in Washington. He says, need for these local resources has never been greater, yet the Bush Administration wants to eliminate the entire block grant.

In his budget proposal, President Bush says the program has never been shown to produce results, and many of its services in employment, housing, and nutrition, are covered by other federal programs. Bradley says, the cuts would be felt immediately.

Mr. BRADLEY: In the first year, approximately half of the network would go. Somewhere between 500 and 600 agencies would close their doors, primarily in rural areas.

KORRY: President Bush tried to eliminate the same program last year, but Congress rejected the proposal.

Elaine Korry, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elaine Korry is an NPR contributor based in San Francisco. From August 2004-June 2007 she worked as an NPR senior reporter covering social policy for NPR, with a focus on education, and on the lives of the nation's most vulnerable citizens — the homeless, those living in poverty, working in low wage positions, and trying to find their way to a more stable life.