Why Did Food Programs For Low-Income DC Seniors Need A Last-Minute Save?

The last-minute save of the food assistance programs for low-income D.C. seniors left a question in my mind. Why, I asked, did we have a near-crisis anyway?

A followup column by Washington City Paper reporter Lydia DePillis provides a partial answer.

Seems that funding for the Greater Washington Urban League’s administrative services wasn’t identified in the Fiscal Year 2012 budget because it was awarded as a one-year grant, with options for renewal.

Unless I’m much mistaken, it wasn’t a line in the Fiscal Year 2011 budget either — perhaps for the same reason.

This explains why advocates weren’t aware that the new budget provided no local funds for administering the programs. Also why senior members of the Gray administration may not have known there might be an issue.

Responding, I assume, to a query from DePillis, a Department of Health spokesperson writes, “All subgrants are subject to funding availability. GWUL was advised last year that the previous funding .. would not be available in FY 2012.”

The Urban League’s Chief Operating Officer tells a different story. Says that they “actually found out about the disappearance of funds several months ago.” (This is an indirect quote in DePillis’s original column on the issue, but I see no reason to believe that it’s not very close to what the COO said.)

Whatever the timing, I don’t think DOH is off the hook.

Recent developments suggest that funding would have been available if the department had flagged the issue back when the Gray administration was developing its proposed budget.

The grant, after all, wasn’t to support some charitable program the Urban League had decided to initiate. It was to partially cover the costs of administering two federally-funded programs DOH is responsible for.

If the department thought the Urban League was spending more than needed, it could have laid the groundwork for a smooth transition to another third-party administrator. That also could have required some local funding.

Since DOH has just announced a new administrator, it’s fair to conclude that it had no assurance it could get the needed services for free when it decided no local funding was needed. Nor do we know at this point whether it will.*

Also fair to conclude that it saw no urgency in providing for some stop-gap measure that would allow low-income seniors to keep getting their grocery bags.

After all, the Urban League issued its notice to clients on or about September 16.

DOH clearly knew by then that the food programs wouldn’t operate unless something were done PDQ. But, so far as we know, it didn’t go directly to top-level people in the Gray administration. If it did, then they’re at fault too.

All we know for certain is that they jumped in only when alerted by DC Hunger and the grassroots messages it generated.

Or maybe only when the advocacy spun off into, among other things, a query from the director of the DC Council Committee on Human Services and negative publicity foreshadowed by the original DePillis column.

In short, it’s a fine thing that low-income seniors will continue to get their free groceries without interruption. But there never should have been a moment’s doubt about this.

* In response to a query, DOH informed me that it is still in negotiations with “the potential subgrantee” and that “until negotiations are finalized, discussions … will remain confidential.”

4 Responses to Why Did Food Programs For Low-Income DC Seniors Need A Last-Minute Save?

  1. […] A followup posting delves into the final question above. It summarizes new information that’s been unearthed, as […]

  2. Racquel Brown says:

    Regardless of the whosezee, what’s and why’s EVERYONE dropped the ball and typical DC politics, lets blame everyone else except ourselves. This budget passed through too many hands for there not to have been one courageous person to ask questions.
    From the administrative assistant to the mayor himself, ALLLLL are to blame. What’s disheartning is, in a city that’s inindated with parking meters in residential neighborhoods, traffic cameras, construction on every empty lot. Baseball stadiums, THAT AREN’T PAYING FOR THEMSELVES, that the city subsidized !!!! WE try to make the disinfranchised pay for things that they neither want or need. Even though the powers that be feel no shame, “I feel it for you”. Where are our Petey Greens when you need um.

  3. This isn’t just a problem in Washington. Helping those with hardships seems to be falling through the cracks in the budget everywhere. And there’s always some ‘reason’ why no one is to blame.

  4. Kathryn Baer says:

    Couldn’t agree more, Debbie. State and local governments across the country are making budget decisions that weaken the safety net. Our federal government too.

    The case with our food assistance programs in the District was somewhat more complicated. Looks as if it may have been bureaucratic bungling, though that too could have resulted in part from underfunding.

    We can nevertheless learn a general lesson: Strong, smart advocacy, including outcries by us grassroots, can (sometimes) get policymakers to do the right thing—or stop them from doing the wrong thing.

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