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CONSUMER GROUP SUES DHR Earl Lee Smith was poor but he wasn’t poor enough By Greg Moses Bryan THE OLD MAN DRAWS UP HIS FACE like an old tobacco pouch pulled tight and lowers his head a bit, a sign that one of his headaches is coming on. He presses his thumb and four fingers to a spot near the center of his gray head and massages the scalp deliberately back and forth. Eighty-threeyear-old Earl Lee Smith has had bad headaches all his life, but he knows how to stop them. “I take a little salt,” he says, “and put it up on my head, see. And that knocks it out. Table salt.” He moistens the salt with a little water, he explains, rubs it on his head, and in a few minutes the headache is gone. “That’s the only thing that will stop it,” he says, chuckling. “It looks simple, but it will do it.” These days Earl Lee Smith has a different kind of headache, one that may take a while to ease. He and five of his Bryan neighbors are co-plaintiffs in a lawsuit filed recently by Consumers Union against the Texas Department of Human Resources for alleged mismanagement of $42.3 million in federal block grant funds intended to help low-income Texans pay their utility bills. It is the first suit in the nation to challenge a state’s administration of federal block grant funds. The DHR has already spent $18 million under the Home Energy Assistance Program to defray heating costs incurred by the state’s poor last winter, but Consumers Union won a temporary injunction preventing the department from spending another $12 million in HEAP funds to underwrite cooling costs until the suit is settled. \(Austin District Judge Jerry Dellana lifted the injunction the next day after hearing from the attorney general’s office that a one-week hold on the program may kill the program alCarol Barger, director of the southwest regional office of Consumers Union in Austin, said DHR has not publized the HEAP program in newspaper advertising or postings at community action centers. She says DHR also erred when it restricted the winter HEAP program to those who received food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or Supplemental Social Security Income in Dec., 1981. In Texas, approximately 40% of low-income families do not take part in any of these assistance programs, and as Barger contends, DHR violates the intent of Congress by making these families ineligible. The federal mandate is to target energy assistance payments to households with the highest energy costs in relation to income. EARL LEE SMITH LIVES in a small, two-room house in northeast Bryan for which he pays $50 a month in rent. He receives $296 a month from Social Security, a small food-stamp allotment, and three times a week he gets some help with meals. He is not eligible for the energy assistance program. Lamar Hankins, a Gulf Coast Legal Services attorney, read the court affidavit to Smith, who because of an eye condition, can no longer read for himself. “Because of my limited income,” the affidavit explains, “I am in need of utility assistance provided by the Home Energy Assistance Program. However, I have not had an opportunity during 1982 to apply for the Home Energy Assistance Program. The Department of Human Resources did not send me an application and my attorney has not been able to get one for me. I expect that I will also need utility assistance during the hot summer months this year.” If the lawsuit is successful, Smith and others like him will be allowed to apply for HEAP money. Whether they finally get the money may depend on the use of more legal crowbars. The block grant programs, say the new federalists, will allow states more “flexibility” in spending federal money. There will be less “red tape” and more “cost effectiveness:” less “abuse” and more attention to the “truly needy.” Above all, the block-grant proponents say, the money will be distributed by people close to the needy, and government will be “decentralized.” But somehow all those theories got twisted into a program remarkably more centralized and noticeably less attuned to the needs of people like Earl Lee Smith. Under the old federalism, bureaucrats in Washington directed bureaucrats in Bryan who administered various social services under the aegis of the Brazos Valley Community Action Agency. Everyone complained of red tape. Reporters and politicians found it difficult to explain the system to themselves, much less to the tax-paying public. So new federalism, promising clarity, effi-_ ciency, and zeal, took over. Governor Clements applied for money from Washington, giving a few assurances about how the money would be spent. In the case of HEAP, he promised to provide “outreach” services and issue press releases telling people that the program was available. He promised to help people whose income was below the poverty line or whose income was less than 60% of the median income. Specifically, the governor promised he wouldn’t give the money to anyone who made more than that. As it turns out, there is a clever distinction between promising to help 8 JULY 23, 1982