Stimulus funds called lifesaver

  • Article by: MARIA ELENA BACA
  • Star Tribune
  • October 12, 2010 - 5:00 PM

For some Americans, the jury's still out on whether the federal stimulus program was worth the cost.

Patrick McFarland has no such questions.

The executive director of the Anoka County Community Action Program says the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's infusion of nearly $5.5 million locally over two years created jobs, prevented homelessness, subsidized home heating and more. All that at a time when the agency was staring down the train wreck of recession-generated increases in need and huge cuts in funding from the state, the county and charities like United Way. Traditional federal funding generally has been inadequate, he added, because it's calculated using outdated 2000 Census data.

"The nature of my business is that the largest demand for resources comes when we have the least ability to respond because state and charitable resources are cut down," McFarland said.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) has funneled $219 billion across the United States for a variety of programs and projects. Minnesota has been awarded a total of $3.57 billion.

The calculations are complicated, but McFarland estimates that his agency has lost about a quarter of its state funding since 2003.

Over that time, use of the agency went down, in raw numbers, largely due to decreased subsidies for child-care services. But many of the families that remain as clients are piggybacking on multiple needs for job counseling, foreclosure and energy assistance, emergency food and health services and other needs.

McFarland said this was the fifth recession he's experienced over 38 years in social services. Starting in 2008, the foreclosures, stalled construction and manufacturing and frozen credit-markets made a direct hit on Main Street that was different, say, from the farm crisis or the "Asian contagion" of the late 1990s.

"We had less resources to deal with [the current recession]," he said. "And then we had ARRA, and that ARRA is what's really saved us." Stimulus funding made it possible for the Community Action Program to flex to the needs of this crisis, he said, by providing:

• $774,000 to transition people affected by foreclosure and job loss into affordable housing and offer caseworker support to keep them in shelter;

• $3.66 million to help people keep their homes heated and to do weatherization to keep bills down in the future;

• $1 million that met needs as diverse as extending hours for the Anoka County Workforce Center, providing car repair help to individuals, and extending Head Start.

McFarland pointed to Anoka County data recently released by the state, which pinpointed the region's largest job losses to manufacturing and construction, and the largest gains in health care and social services.

Through stimulus-funded programs, McFarland said, the agency created about 110 jobs, largely in construction and human services.

All of the ARRA funding has been awarded. McFarland said he hopes it was enough to bridge the recession, but the future is uncertain.

"I'm kind of a realistic optimist; we have the ability to change and to do things," he said, adding that the agency will have to adjust to economic realities. "We'll continue to take advantage of opportunities out there to help our communities."

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