(Corrects paragraph 18 to say no funding cuts to Pell Grants instead of a $1,000 cut.)
By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – When Charla Plaines saw the toll lead paint took on her granddaughter, she was able to get the hazardous substance scrubbed from her home thanks to a federally funded program that Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives want to cut.
Black Americans, including Plaines, a 66-year-old grandmother in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, would be disproportionately hit by this and many other cuts lawmakers are pushing as Congress faces a government shutdown deadline this month.
No amount of lead is considered safe, but tests showed Plaines’ now-11-year-old granddaughter, Loyalty Johnson, suffered significant developmental delays from a substantially elevated blood level above the threshold set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A 2020 study published by the National Institutes of Health found Black children had 2.8 times higher odds of elevated blood lead levels compared with white and Hispanic children.
As she prepared for a great-grandchild also spending time at her home, Plaines in 2022 had $15,000 worth of lead-contaminated doors, window frames and other materials removed, financed by a 30-year-old U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program.
The program is one of many targeted by House Republicans’ belt-tightening campaign, which comes amid high budget deficits that are the result of Republican and Democratic policies.
The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee crafted 12 partisan government spending bills that Chairwoman Kay Granger boasted are “the most conservative appropriations bills in history.”
Marc Morial, head of the National Urban League, a civil rights and urban advocacy organization, dismissed them as “a large list of politically and racially motivated special interest initiatives.”
“Blame the poor. Blame the Blacks and Latinos” for fiscal problems, he added.
Brian Riedl, senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, said there is room to reduce spending on some programs or merge them with others. Unlike many conservatives, he also backs exploring tax increases as one salve for Washington’s fiscal woes.
“I won’t deny that budget cuts are painful and there are people who are harmed by them, absolutely,” Riedl said.
“There’s no way I would have been able to afford the improvements” the HUD grant financed, Harrisburg grandmother Plaines said.
Other racial groups would be affected. For example, Republican-proposed “food stamps” reductions for the poor would largely affect white people who comprise nearly half its recipients.
The hit that Black Americans would take is particularly disproportionate in other areas of the budget.
They include termination of a 32-year-old “Healthy Start” program to battle infant mortality and a 67% funding cut to rehabilitate and build affordable housing units.
House Republicans backed some funding increases, however, such as a $96 million hike in homeless assistance grants.
Republicans argue there are better ways to administer activities on their chopping block by merging them with similar programs or clawing back unspent funds.
Democrats and President Joe Biden’s administration disagree, saying the programs would wither.
Funding for low-income college students under the Pell Grant program, which most Black undergraduates obtain for tuition, would remain at last year’s level under the bill approved by a House Republican-controlled subcommittee. That legislation has been stalled in the full committee.
“Virtually every (House Appropriations) bill has riders blocking the ability of the Biden administration to focus on social justice and diversity,” said Charles Kieffer, a former Democratic budget and appropriations aide.
Republican Representative Tom Cole, who oversees housing funding, said reductions are the byproduct of tight spending caps on selective programs: “You have a top line … and the top-line number is low.”
HOUSES ARE ‘SO OLD’
Slightly over half of Harrisburg’s 50,000 population is Black; one-quarter is Hispanic or Latino.
“The housing stock is so old, we never fail to find lead hazards,” said Dave Olsen, manager of Harrisburg’s $5 million Lead Hazard Reduction Demonstration grant.
Lead-based paint was banned in 1978 because of severe neurological problems it causes in young children.
By April, 262 Harrisburg housing units will have been cleansed under the current round of grants, Olsen said.
Federal officials contend that for every dollar it spends on removing lead paint, between $17 to $200 is saved by improved child health.
House Republicans would fund the lead program at $65 million below last year’s $410 million. It also would capture $560 million that was to be dispatched over three years.
Representative Rosa DeLauro, the senior House Appropriations Democrat, said that would mean 33,000 fewer low-income families getting homes scrubbed of lead, resulting in about 46,000 children continuing to be exposed.
Another housing program, financing construction and rehabilitation of low-income homes, which has been functioning since the early 1990s, would see a two-thirds reduction from its $1.5 billion last year.
Robert Henson, of the National Council of State Housing Agencies, said the Republican provision would mean about 17,000 fewer affordable homes built or rehabilitated this year and about 5,000 fewer households supported.
While Congress battles over what to cut and what to protect, Charla Plaines sees firsthand the value of government addressing social needs.
Her granddaughter, she explains, has required speech therapy and struggles with reading and math, although “her vocabulary is definitely improved.” Doctors cited lead exposure as the cause. She and her family think Loyalty was exposed to high doses of lead from a pacifier she sometimes placed, unknowingly, on a contaminated window sill.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Scott Malone, Kat Stafford and Jonathan Oatis)