OEDEL: Funding frenzy

November 10, 2013 

I’ve written plenty about Macon’s need to overcome poverty, so I was drawn to explore the role of Macon-Bibb’s Economic Opportunity Council. EOC’s self-proclaimed “purpose and mission” is “to break the cycle of poverty” in Macon by “enabling low-income individuals to ... extricate themselves from their poverty condition.”

EOC tries to break the poverty cycle by “coordinating available resources.” That can mean coordinating programs like Head Start, but it can also just mean channeling government money into things like the big pile of children’s toys featured on the EOC website’s front page.

EOC is funded by taxpayer dollars from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Georgia’s Department of Family and Children Services and local government. After funding itself, EOC sometimes funnels cash or cash substitutes to savvy citizens who apply and qualify for its various forms of assistance.

Last week, for instance, EOC began accepting applications for grants of $300-$350 for home heating “assistance” (basically, cash) as part of the “Home Energy Assistance Program.” That EOC program alone costs more than $2 million per year locally -- not chump change. To get a sense of the process, I went to St. Paul AME Church on Shurling Drive where the EOC was taking applications.

I found the lot jammed with cars, and was immediately impressed by the large number of fine vehicles on hand for the funding frenzy: Accord V-6, Avalon, Avenger, Cadillac, Lexus, Lincoln Town Car, Ram Hemi, and on and on -- many of them late-model editions. Apparently some applicants for heating assistance are already themselves rather successful at “coordinating available resources.”

A uniformed Macon police officer immediately approached me as I was writing down that list of vehicle types, saying I was on private property and causing concern among car owners that I was recording their tags. I assured the officer and a few nervous, testy applicants for government checks, that I was not writing down tag numbers. That didn’t seem to help.

I politely suggested that this was a public event paid for by taxpayers, that I had as much right as the next person to be there, and that I wanted to see what it took to qualify. Yet the officer, buoyed by the little chorus of vocal antagonists, continued to insist that I had no right to be there.

When I walked up to the door through which other people were going in without any obstruction, the officer blocked my way, tugged my coat and planted his foot against the door so that I could not enter. Several antagonists egged him on.

I politely, but firmly, reiterated that I had a legal right to be there, and that it wasn’t the police’s job to screen out some members of the public when others were being allowed in. It seemed ironic that someone like me who had just driven up in a 16-year-old car would be profiled as someone to be screened out when others with fancier, newer cars than mine, were being welcomed.

Only after I suggested that I might be publicizing my experience did the officer relent and allow me to enter. After discussing the process with an EOC representative, I left, but not before surveying the roomful of people who were applying for checks.

Appearances can be deceiving, but this group, numbering about 150-200, didn’t look poverty stricken in comparison with many Maconites I know and see daily who are far more obviously, desperately poor. But those folks apparently didn’t have rides, fancy or not, to EOC’s event on Shurling, which, incredibly, wasn’t even on a bus line.

If EOC intends to break Macon’s cycle of poverty, it might rethink its approach of steering handouts to select, sophisticated “low income” elites like some last week who buzzed over to Shurling to stake claims.

Macon has plenty of poorer folks without cars who need help more than many people at EOC’s event last week. EOC might adjust its approach to help the neediest first.

David Oedel teaches at Mercer University Law School.

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