In the early 1980s the Reagan administration unleashed its conservative vision for the role of the federal government: massive cuts and restructuring in federal funding for social service programs, major expansion in military expenditures, and cuts in federal tax rates. The civil legal aid community was justifiably anxious and concerned. The Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981 was a major initial installment of the Reagan administration’s agenda. It consolidated 77 federal programs into 9 “block grants,” which devolved much greater authority to states to administer the funds.
Block Grants Then
At that time I was director of the Illinois State Support Center, a program funded by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to support the Illinois civil legal aid community. Like many others in our community, I was concerned that states would divert community development block grants to rural road repairs or do other mischief with their newly vested discretion. I mulled over ways that the legal aid community could act on behalf of our clients. My deliberations were published in the June 1982 Clearinghouse Review as a short article, “Block Grants: Some Generic Issues” (linked below). I urged my colleagues to take advantage of requirements in the Act that directed states to establish citizen participation, planning, and data collection procedures and to explore ways to urge state-level policy makers to adopt effective policies and procedures on the administration of block grant funds.
Of course, back in those days LSC-funded programs could still engage, with limited constraints, in legislative and administrative advocacy on policy issues. LSC funded over 1,400 local programs employing more than 6,000 attorneys, 17 national backup centers, and state support centers in all states. That landscape gradually changed during the 1980s: Congress reduced funding for LSC by 25 percent, added new restrictions on the use of LSC funds for lobbying and rulemaking, and prohibited using LSC funds to represent certain categories of noncitizens. In addition, LSC began an aggressive and punitive program of monitoring for compliance. Monitoring visits were conducted in an adversarial atmosphere and required local programs to commit enormous staff resources during the visits and in response to the findings of the monitoring team.
Congress made another heavy round of cuts in the legal aid community in 1996: funding for national and state support centers ended; class action litigation and lobbying activities were barred; and the right to collect attorney fees for prevailing clients was eliminated. Block grants once again took a toll on federal programs for our clients as “welfare reform” converted the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant. States had wide latitude in how they spent those funds, and little of it went to cash assistance for families in poverty. Compounding the problem, the block grant was a fixed amount that did not increase when caseloads rose.
Block Grants Now
Now we face a tsunami of horrendous policy proposals from Congress and the Trump/Pence administration. Although it never garnered enough support to pass, the American Health Care Act, in addition to dismantling the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, threatened the loss of health care coverage for 24 million people. The week before the bill was abandoned, Republican leaders in the House amended the bill in ways that would have further reduced access to health care. One such way would be by offering Medicaid funds to states as a “flexible block grant” and automatically approving state plans for the states’ discretionary use of those Medicaid block grant funds; approval would be by default unless the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) expressly rejected those plans within 30 days.
More bad news can be expected on the administrative front. For example, HHS recently sent to all state governors a letter inviting them to submit proposals for Medicaid waivers that would allow work requirements, premium payments, and other “innovations” and promising to fast-track approval processes. The Trump administration’s “skinny budget” proposes major cuts or even elimination of funding in dozens of critical human service programs, including job training. Ironically the proposed budget eliminates four block grant programs, including the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and the Community Development Block Grant, which funds, among many other concerns, some Meals on Wheels programs. The $508 million budget request by LSC was also reduced to zero in the Trump budget.
As in the 1980s, some of these proposals will be stopped cold (as the American Health Care Act appears to have been); some will be whittled down; and many others will do terrible damage. Civil legal aid and equal justice advocates can contribute in many ways to stopping or ameliorating the effects of harmful policy changes. Although the threats now are more severe, the concluding paragraph of my 1982 block grant article in Clearinghouse Review remains remarkably relevant today:
It is clear that the strategies outlined above cannot be effectively implemented by individual legal services staff or their clients or even groups of legal services attorneys and clients. We will have an impact on these issues only when we are able to develop broadly based coalitions with both traditional allies, such as human services advocates in community[-]based organizations, and also with those previously considered to be unsympathetic or even antagonistic toward the needs of the poor. Businessmen, bankers, bureaucrats, mayors, providers, and organized charities will all be affected, in different ways, by the administration of block grants. And though all of those constituencies have obviously different agendas, there is no rational reason for them not to support, in different ways, concerns about citizen participation, priority setting, planning, and data collection and evaluation. The battle for survival has thrown the legal services community into the political thicket; our response to block grant issues will be measured by how well we learn to navigate within that maze.