Thanks for the help, Uncle Busybody

Published 9:22 pm Thursday, July 2, 2009

Which is more likely to stimulate the economy — a new playground or better drainage in the Raleigh Avenue neighborhood?

Most reasonable people will agree that the answer is “neither.” It was a trick question. The $50,000 in federal stimulus funds that the city of Suffolk had planned to spend on building a new playground at the East Suffolk Community Center would have paid for some equipment and the people to install it, but it wouldn’t have had much downstream effect besides giving some area contractor a small project to help shore up his sagging bottom line.

On the other hand, clearing a few ditches and building curbs and gutters along Raleigh Avenue also will employ a few people for a couple of weeks, but it will have little effect beyond the original scope of the project.

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What’s the difference? For the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the difference is that the agency is willing to fund one project with federal stimulus money but not the other.

Stimulus funds distributed through the Community Development Block Grant must be used for projects that will benefit low- to moderate-income households and families, projects that will eliminate slums and blighting conditions or projects that will address urgent needs or imminent threats within the community.

Considering those requirements, which would be the most sensible project for HUD to finance with federal stimulus dollars? If you guessed a playground, report to the principal’s office after class — along with city officials, most of whom probably thought that a place for children to have fun safely addressed an urgent need in the East Suffolk community, where low- to moderate-income families struggle to find things for their children to do and work to overcome the rundown conditions of much of the surrounding area.

Clearly — at least according to Uncle Sam — curbs and gutters are a matter of much more pressing national concern. Perhaps there is a study sitting in a file drawer somewhere in Washington, D.C., proving that kids who grow up in neighborhoods with concrete curbs grow up smarter and less prone to getting involved in gangs than kids in neighborhoods where the water doesn’t drain quite so quickly.

Fortunately for Suffolk citizens, the city will be able to complete both projects by shuffling money around. The lesson in the politics of the stimulus program is free: Don’t ask your rich uncle for money unless you’re willing for him to tell you how to spend it.