ELKHART -- Even in ordinary times, Rachel Baird would be considered an inspiring success.
But in these times of deficit woes and demands for deep cuts in the federal budget, Baird is highlighted as an example of the good public money can do.
The 39-year-old single mother of four is a participant in the Family Empowerment program which promotes financial self-sufficiency through education. For the seven years Baird has been in the program, she has gone from being battered and unemployed to getting out of the abusive relationship and being just months away from receiving her bachelor's degree in accounting.
Life-changing stories like Baird's are common in Family Empowerment, program coordinators say. However, the service could end if the Community Services Block Grants, which provide much of the funding for family development programs like Family Empowerment, are zeroed out of the federal budget.
"(The government) will end up spending more money because if you take away the dollars that are supporting programs to help individuals become self-sufficient ... you're putting them in the same position that you say you are essentially trying to move them away from," said Vanessa Kelleybrew, executive director of individuals & Families in Transition (iFiT), the agency that administers Family Empowerment.
On the other side of the argument, proponents of limited government and curtailed spending say cutting the CSBG and other items from Washington's responsibilities is no different than the painful choices many families have had to make to live within their means.
Caught in the middle are people like Baird.
TRYING TO LEAVE POVERTY
Two weeks after graduating from Jimtown High School, Baird married and settled into what she thought would be a happily-ever-after life. Seven years later, she was divorced and started struggling to survive on low-skill, low-paying jobs. That is also when she got entangled in an abusive relationship.
"When I was living dollar to dollar, we ate a lot of macaroni and cheese and ramen noodles," she said "A lot of stress, a lot of pressure, a lot of bill collectors calling me. It was horrible. Absolutely horrible."
Baird hit bottom when she was fired from her job at an area retailer because she could not afford the day care that would enable her to work the required nights and weekends. As she was standing in the WorkOne office waiting to file for unemployment benefits, she picked up a pamphlet about the Family Empowerment program.
First came the move into a shelter to get away from her abusive husband. Next came enrollment in Ivy Tech Community College, followed by graduation in 2006. Then came enrollment in Indiana University South Bend. Along the way there have been workshops to help with things like budgeting, car maintenance, and social etiquette as well as constant encouragement from a case manager and help finding resources in the community.
"I think that's what's really big with our program is they're not only achieving financial self-sufficiency but they have the skills and tools to maintain it," said Carrie Zickefoose, Family Empowerment coordinator. "I think of times right now and ... education really is a weapon against poverty. It's not always a guarantee but it sure helps."
RELYING ON GOVERNMENT FUNDS
Family Empowerment relies on the CSBG for 67 percent of its funding, said Kelleybrew. Without the federal assistance the program would look for other grants to provide funding, but if Congress passes the House budget or lets the entire government shut down when the Continuing Resolution runs out March 13, Family Empowerment would be in peril.
Not only does the CSBG duplicate "many other block grants" aimed at poverty and broad-based community development but it is also an initiative that would be better funded by state and local governments, said Brian Riedle, research fellow in federal budget policy at the Heritage Foundation.
"I don't think anyone is saying there should be no programs to help low-income families," he said.
State and local governments have a more comprehensive understanding of their communities' needs than does Capitol Hill, Riedle said. Consequently, funding for family development programs should be shifted away from the federal government.
Taxpayers would not save any money by a shift in funding sources, he said. They would just be sending more of their tax dollars to their state and less to Washington.
The CSBG monies is distributed in Indiana through the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority. One recipient is REAL Services in South Bend which allocates its portion of the funds over five counties in Northern Indiana, including Elkhart County. Overall in 2010, the CSBG funding that flowed through REAL Services aided 11 programs and helped 1,936 families.
For 2011, REAL Services has been budgeted to receive $714,345, said LaTonia Newhouse, director of community services at the agency. Of that, $130,000 has been slated for three different programs in Elkhart County.
Washington does not determine how the money is used, she said. The funds are passed to local agencies who then design ways to make the assistance meet local needs.
Four of the five counties put part of their CSBG monies into family development programs that offer a holistic approach to helping dependent families provide for themselves. Like Family Empowerment's approach with Baird, participants in family development are given help and support for all areas of their lives so they can focus on education and meeting the needs of their children.
"It's an investment," Newhouse said. "It really turns people who are dependent into taxpaying citizens and contributors to the (federal) debt we're trying to get out of."
Locally, iFit calculated that for every client who successfully completes the Family Empowerment program, the federal government saves $15,742 annually.
A NEED TO CUT
Agencies across the country who receive CSBG funds have launched a campaign to save the federal funding from the budget ax. At iFiT, the staff and participants in Family Empowerment have been contacting elected officials and sharing their stories.
"I understand they have a job to do but at the same time, taking away these funds will affect so many on so many different levels," Kelleybrew said.
As the parents become financially stable, they encourage their children to do well in school and pursue a college degree so the generations following have a less likely chance of becoming reliant on government assistance for food and housing. Newhouse called it the trickle-down effect which, she said, makes the impact much larger beyond the clients.
Education has become a family value in Baird's household.
"My younger daughter, she's like, 'Mom do people have to go to college?'" Baird recalled. "I'm like, 'You do ... and you are.' That's what I told them. I don't want you guys to have to struggle the way that I have."
However, these days in Washington every program has at least one person pleading how essential and vital funding is to his or her program, said Michael Connolly, spokesman for the Club for Growth. The messages are entering an atmosphere created by the new crop of Republican representatives where slashing the federal deficit is the top priority.
"We're definitely in a new moment," Connolly said. "The idea is not how much to spend but how much to cut."
When families have less money coming into their homes, they stop the cable television and quit eating out as often, he said. Then if those cuts are not enough, they are forced to make painful choices. The federal government, with its $1.6 trillion fiscal shortfall, is now in the same position.
Even President Barack Obama has acknowledged the federal government must rein in its spending. In his State of the Union, he referred to his proposed cuts to community action programs which would include the CSBG.
"I was surprised," Newhouse said when she heard that in the president's speech, "because this is really where his roots are. Putting us out there is a little like putting one of his kids out there."
Still, she believes, he did that to show he is serious about cutting the budget.
THOSE LEFT BEHIND
What happens in Washington will not stop Baird. She is far enough along that the potential end of Family Empowerment would not hinder her getting her degree and finding employment.
She does, however, worry about those single mothers who could remain stuck in poverty if they no longer have the program's support.
"It saddens me to think that with the accomplishments that I have reached that others may not have that," Baird said. "Women who went through the same thing I did, that there's a possibility that they won't have the opportunity that I do."
For every family that graduates from the Family Empowerment program, the government saves annually:
* $3,876 in food stamps
* $2,616 in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families
* $4,800 in housing assistance
* $250 in mileage assistance
* $4,200 in child care assistance
In total, every successful client saves the government $15,742 each year.
Source: individuals & Families in Transition in Elkhart.
WHAT DOES THE CSBG DO LOCALLY?
The Community Services Block Grant helps support 11 social service agencies in five Northern Indiana counties served by REAL Services.
* La Casa de Amistad
* Elkhart Child Development Center
* St. Margaret's House
* Habitat for Humanity of Elkhart County
* United Religious Community
* Meals on Wheels
* Combined Community Services in Kosciusko County
* Marshall County Council on Aging
* Family Services of Elkhart County (Family Empowerment)
* REAL Services in St. Joseph County
The counties REAL Services covers are Elkhart, Fulton, Kosciusko, Marshall and St. Joseph.