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On the Hot Seat

US spending cuts could hobble social services

John J. Drew, president, Action for Boston Community Development.

Charlie Mahoney for The Boston Globe

John J. Drew, president, Action for Boston Community Development.

As president of Action for Boston Community Development, or ABCD, John J. Drew oversees more than 100 different community and social service programs — from food pantries to fuel assistance programs to two high schools for students who might otherwise drop out. The $135 million anti­poverty operation relies almost entirely on federal funding. As Congress considers sequestration — across-the-board spending cuts taking effect in March unless lawmakers modify them — Drew spoke with Globe reporter Megan Woolhouse about what the reductions would mean for social services in Boston.

Do you have an estimate of how much funding you would lose if sequestration takes effect?

I would say at this point, with across-the-board cuts, we could lose up to $20 million. If that’s the way it happens, we’d talk about shutting down Head Start centers, laying off hundreds of teachers, and stopping programs that would put about 1,000 kids to work next summer.

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None of the people we serve, none, have been the cause of this problem. They don’t get capital gains, they don’t have yachts, they didn’t have anything to do with the financial meltdown. But they’re supposed to pay the price?

ABCD’s programs help about 85,000 people a year in some way. How would that impact your operations?

We were looking at the possibility of everything [being] cut at least 8 percent. That stinks because we have 2,400 kids in Head Start, and we’d have to throw a couple hundred kids out of school. These are very serious things.

Title 10 family planning has already been cut 10 percent in anticipation of federal government cutbacks. We’ve been doing that program for 27 years — it’s a neighborhood health program. Last year we saw over 20,0000 women. Take 10 percent of that, or 2,000 women.

Are you concerned about the nation’s rising deficit?

We should reduce the deficit in context. It was run up by two wars that weren’t paid for. We need a plan to retire our debts over a period of time. We also have to deal with entitlements. You can’t do that in one year.

About half of the planned spending cuts come from the defense budget, which will hurt Massachusetts, which receives more than most states in defense dollars. Do you think defense spending should be cut even more?

The folks in the defense industry are much better getting out word about the cuts than we are. All I hear is how bad it is to have defense cut. That’s only because children don’t have a voice as loud as defense people. I understand it’s all about jobs, job, jobs, but a lot of jobs will be lost if our programs are cut. A lot of mothers work in these programs.

Has your federal funding increased or decreased over the years?

Our federal funding has been in decline except for a stimulus spurt a couple years ago. Every one of our programs to some degree is being cut back slowly. Adult programs for GED, adult basic education — those programs are almost eliminated. Our career training program, with its 90 percent placement rate, is almost gone. We have so many people who need to get this training.

The country has stopped investing, quite frankly, in adult education. Particularly in cities with immigrants who may not have skills. Unless they have a way to get skills, we’ll have a generation of people who are not going to be able to work at a level where they can sustain themselves.

What do you think Congress will do next? Will they let the cuts go into effect or negotiate something new?

I’m very pessimistic. I do think they should tackle, take a hard look at, entitlements. And they’ve got to look at defense. More revenue is needed.

We deal with a lot of people here every day and they don’t have anything. They need heating assistance. They need housing. They can’t afford a rent that’s $1,500 a month when they only make $1,000. If Congress and the president slice and dice services, they’re only going to make people’s lives bad and cause so much grief. It’s already tough enough to live day to day without a lot of hope.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.
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