Taking from the neediest

By Adrian Walker
February 7, 2011

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John Drew, who heads the city’s largest antipoverty agency, isn’t averse to fighting over funding.

He is surprised, though, that his current adversary is the nation’s most famous former community organizer: President Obama’s budget proposal — to be released next week — will recommend cutting a program vital to local community service groups.

“We knew we didn’t have a lot of friends in the new Republican Congress,’’ Drew said. “But we are something he should own, he should adopt, he should understand.’’

The funding is formally known as Community Service Block Grants, which go to almost 1,100 social service agencies across the country. In Boston, the primary recipient is Action for Boston Community Development, better known as ABCD. It receives about $5.5 million a year to fund a citywide network of neighborhood offices.

Those offices are where clients turn for programs ranging from fuel assistance to summer jobs to job placement. Drew told me all 13 offices could be forced to close if the agency’s federal funding takes a huge hit.

That would come as a blow to someone like Maria Amezquita, 32, who credits ABCD — in particular, the Fenway/Parker Hill office — for keeping her on her feet when she was a 19-year-old expectant mother. She got help in earning her high school equivalent degree, and the agency has since helped her find jobs and raise her daughter.

“If they take those services away I’m going to be devastated,’’ she said. Those services, she said, “allowed me to become a productive single mother.’’ Amezquita recently began a job working with pregnant teenagers at a Boston-area shelter.

The news that the grants were in jeopardy came directly from Obama during his State of the Union speech. He said that even community groups should be prepared to tighten their belts as the country struggles with a huge and growing budget deficit. Since then, the administration has elaborated on its plans.

The administration’s idea is twofold. First, it wants to cut the $700-million-a-year program in half. Second, it wants agencies to bid for the money on a competitive basis, in much the same way that states now compete for education funding under the Race to The Top program. Never mind that Race to the Top is a mess, panned by lawmakers in both parties.

“I started out saddened and now I feel betrayed,’’ said Drew, a veteran of nearly half a century at ABCD. “We’re going to fight back, but we’re fighting the president of the United States.’’

The administration’s point of view was laid out in still greater detail yesterday. In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, the head of the White House Office of Management and Budget declared that slashing the block grants by 50 percent and making the program competitive would somehow make it more effective. Jacob Lew didn’t resort to the phrase “doing more with less,’’ but that seemed to be the gist of his argument.

Joining me in not buying this is US Representative Ed Markey, who promised yesterday to lead a revolt against the cut. “I think that [proposing] a 50 percent cut in programs for the poor without also dramatically slashing the defense budget and proposing tax increases on the wealthy, it’s a great surprise to those of us who support the president,’’ he said in a telephone interview.

Of course, budget proposals are just that — proposals. But that doesn’t ease a lot of anxiety at a place like ABCD.

“For this to happen now, I just find it unconscionable,’’ Drew said. “Hopefully, people, will listen to us before they start throwing the baby out with the bath water. We’ve built something strong.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at