Sharp differences along lines of race and politics shape American attitudes toward the poor and poverty, according to a new survey of public opinion, which finds empathy toward the poor and deep skepticism about government antipoverty efforts.
The differences illuminate some of the passions that have driven this year’s contentious presidential campaign.
But the poll, which updates a survey The Times conducted three decades ago, also illustrates how attitudes about poverty have remained largely consistent over time despite dramatic economic and social change.
Criticism of the poor – a belief that there are “plenty of jobs available for poor people,” that government programs breed dependency and that most poor people would “prefer to stay on welfare” – is especially common among the blue-collar, white Americans who have given the strongest support to Donald Trump.
The opposite view — that jobs for the poor are hard to find, that government programs help people get back on their feet and that most of the poor would rather earn their own way — is most widely held among blacks and other minorities, who have provided the strongest backing to Hillary Clinton.
Roughly a third of self-described conservatives say that the poor do not work very hard, a view at odds with big majorities of moderates and liberals.
But while Americans disagree in how they view the poor, they’re more united in their skepticism of government programs.
Explore the interactive graphic
That skepticism has held true for decades. The first Times poll of American attitudes toward poverty, in 1985, broke ground by surveying enough poor people to compare their views with those of people in the middle class.
The new survey, which was conducted by The Times and the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank that is generally conservative, asked similar questions but with some updating.
Much has changed since the 1980s. Welfare got a major overhaul in the 1990s. The number of poor Americans dropped sharply in that decade, only to partially rise again, particularly during the deep recession that began in 2007.
But many attitudes have held steady, the new poll found, particularly doubts about the federal government’s ability to run its antipoverty programs, as well as their justification.
Most Americans do not believe that the government bears the main burden of taking care of the poor. Asked who has the “greatest responsibility for helping the poor,” just over one-third said that the government does. That figure has not budged in three decades.
Those who did not think the government has the main responsibility were split about who does. Just under one in five Americans said that the poor themselves bear the greatest responsibility. Family, churches and charities each got mentioned by 10%-15%.
Among Latinos, family came in second behind government; among blacks, churches took second place; Republicans were most likely to put responsibility on the poor themselves.
White Americans were less likely to call government responsible than were minorities, but the difference lay almost entirely with blue-collar whites— those without college degrees. White Americans who graduated from college were as likely to say government has the prime responsibility as were nonwhites.
Attitudes toward antipoverty programs also have not changed much since the 1980s.
Explore the interactive graphic
In the original poll, 58% of Americans said that such efforts had “seldom” worked, while 32% said they “often” had. In the new survey, with a differently worded question, 13% of Americans said such programs have had “no impact” on reducing poverty, and 43% said they have had “some impact.” Only 5% said they have had a “big impact.”
Those living below the poverty line and those above it had largely similar views on that issue both now and three decades ago.
College-educated minorities were most likely in the current poll to say that government programs have had a positive impact on poverty, with more than 7 in 10 taking that view.
At the other end of the scale, about one-third of Americans said that government programs had made poverty worse, a view that was particularly common among conservatives, 47%, and blue-collar whites, 43%.
In both surveys, about 7 in 10 Americans said that even if the government were “willing to spend whatever is necessary to eliminate poverty,” officials do not know enough to accomplish that goal.
Blacks and Latinos were somewhat more likely to express confidence about the government’s ability to end poverty. Even among those groups, however – and among self-described liberals – majorities said the government does not know enough to eradicate poverty.
Asked why antipoverty efforts have failed, more than half of Americans said the main problem was that programs were poorly designed. Among poor people, however, about 3 in 10 said the problem was that programs had not been given enough money to succeed.
On attitudes toward the poor, divides are sharper than on opinions about government.
Blue-collar whites were much more likely than nonwhites to view the poor as a class set apart from the rest of society – trapped in poverty as a more or less permanent condition. Minority Americans, particularly blacks, tended to say that “for most poor people, poverty is a temporary condition” .
A majority of whites see government antipoverty efforts contributing to poverty’s permanence, saying that benefit programs “make poor people dependent and encourage them to stay poor.”
Blacks disagreed, saying that the government help mostly allows poor people to “stand on their own two feet and get started again.” The poor themselves divided evenly on the question. Latinos leaned closer to the skeptical view about government programs expressed by white Americans.
Asked if poor people “prefer to stay on welfare” or would “rather earn their own living,” Americans by a large majority, 61%-36%, said they believed the poor would rather earn their own way. Blue-collar whites were more closely divided on the question, 52%-44%.
That was one of several questions on which the views of minorities and college-educated whites were close to each other, while whites without a college degree stood out as different.
Nearly two-thirds of whites without college degrees, for example, said that benefits encourage poor people to remain in poverty. Among college-educated whites, about half took that view.
Blue-collar whites also took a dimmer view of President Obama’s handling of poverty than did other Americans. Majorities of blacks, Latinos and other minorities, as well as whites with college degrees, approved of Obama’s handling of poverty. But among blue-collar whites, fewer than one-third approved, and nearly two-thirds disapproved.
Not only are Americans skeptical about whether antipoverty programs work, nearly 6 in 10 said that the percentage of people in poverty has been increasing from year to year. About 1 in 4 say poverty has stayed the same, and and 1 in 8 say it has gone down.
Whether the public view of poverty getting worse is accurate or not is a tough question. A lot depends on time frame.
Measured by the government’s official poverty line, the percentage of Americans who were poor declined during the 1960s, plateaued during the 1970s, rose during much of the 1980s, then declined again during the boom years of the 1990s, only to rise again since 2000, especially during the recession. In the last few years, the poverty rate has leveled off at about 15%.
Explore the interactive graphic
The official poverty measure, however, does not include the value of government benefits designed to help the poor. Including those payments, the share of people who are impoverished is now considerably lower than it was in the 1960s, although slightly higher than it was at the end of the 1990s.
One question on which views have changed somewhat since the 1980s is whether poverty is a temporary or a permanent condition.
In the 1985 survey, Americans by a very large majority, 71%-21%, said that most poor people would probably remain poor. Today, that remains the majority view, but the gap has narrowed somewhat, with 60% seeing poverty as mostly permanent and 33% saying it is a temporary condition that people can move into and out of again.
The poor divide closely on that question. So do minorities.
A correct answer to that question is complex. Census figures show that in recent years, people who fell below the poverty line typically stayed poor for about six months. A lot of people, however, cycle in and out of poverty, rising only slightly above the official poverty line, then falling back.
One recent census study found that about one-quarter of poor people were in poverty only briefly – the result of a job loss or other crisis. About 1 in 7 were chronically poor, spending much of their lives impoverished. In between are many who churn in and out of poverty.
Across the board, Americans overestimate how high the government’s poverty line is and how many people live below it. Asked to estimate the poverty line for a family of four, those polled, on average, put it at just over $32,000, which is about a third higher than the actual figure of just over $24,000. The public’s figure may be more realistic, however; many poverty experts think the official level is far too low.
Those polled also estimated that about 40% of Americans live below the poverty line – far more than the actual figure of 15%. Again, though, the public may have the clearer view. Many experts on poverty say that in addition to the roughly 45 million Americans who live below the official poverty line, roughly an equal number are “near poor.”
Many federal benefit programs, including healthcare subsidies, food stamps and Medicaid in many states, are open to people earning significantly more than the official poverty threshold.
The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates, one of the country’s largest nonpartisan polling organizations. The survey was conducted June 20-July 7 among 1,202 adults aged 18 and older, including 235 who live below the poverty line. The survey has a margin of error of 4 percentage points in either direction for the full sample.
Numbers worsen; Poverty toll grows amid aid cutbacks
July 28, 1985
Roger Luster was 11 years old when John F. Kennedy came calling. In the blue-haze stillness of the hills, the clatter of his campaign attracted a dozen persons who stood in the yard and watched. Kennedy climbed the bare, wooden steps. Roger's family asked him in.
He'd been to Slab Fork and Mullens and Welch and Keystone. He'd turned off at Eckman and taken a winding road, black and tan with dirt and coal dust, and he'd followed it up into Eureka Hollow. And now Kennedy, running in the 1960 West Virginia primary, sat in the living room, and Roger's mother, Betty, offered him coffee. It was about all they had.
Burley and Betty Luster, son Roger and seven other children lived in four rooms: one-half of a weathered house, so faded that its yellow was less paint than memory. Another family lived in the other half. The house squatted in a clearing halfway up the hollow, in the heart of Appalachia. For 45 minutes, Kennedy asked questions: How did Burley and Betty and their children survive in these hills? The answers were heart-rending.
Roger's father had been hurt running a coal drill. He couldn't work. He got a government check, but it wasn't much. When the kids ate, it was beans and potatoes and water gravy. When they went to school, lunch was biscuits and jelly in a paper sack. Sometimes Roger was too embarrassed about it to eat. And he was ashamed of his shoes. They had been given to him, and they were nearly three sizes too big. For two months once, Burley and Betty Luster had kept their kids out of school because they had no decent clothes. Sometimes Roger and his brothers and sisters went to bed hungry.
Much of Kennedy's clatter was television: cameras, producers, correspondents. They turned out to be the most important thing about his campaign. On TV, families like the Lusters awakened the nation's conscience to poverty in the midst of plenty. Kennedy pledged: "If I'm nominated and elected President, within 60 days of the start of my Administration I will introduce a program to Congress for aid to West Virginia." Kennedy's program was the opening shot in a war against poverty that his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, mounted all across America, from these white-poor hollows of Appalachia to the black-poor ghettos of Los Angeles. Together with a strong economy, Johnson's war helped cut the poverty rate to 11.1% of the population, the lowest level on record.
But during the mid-1970s the economy began to slump. Unemployment rose. The poverty rate started to climb. At the same time, Presidents Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter allowed the after-inflation value of anti-poverty aid to decline. And since then, despite the increase in poverty, President Reagan has cut the anti-poverty budget. Today, the percentage of poor Americans is the highest since 1965, the year after Johnson declared his war on poverty. By the most recent federal count, a Census Bureau tally in 1983, the poverty rate stands at 15.2% of the population. This means there are 35.3 million poor--or an increase of about 11 million since as recently as 1978. One in every seven Americans is poor. Without government assistance, another 20.8 million Americans would be poor. That totals 56.1 million people--or nearly a quarter of the population.
Worse, the poor are getting poorer. In 1968, the poorest fifth of all families had 91% of the money they needed for basic requirements, according to congressional researchers. By 1983, these researchers say, they had only 60%. The poor are women: More than 60% of all impoverished adults are women. The poor are children: A quarter of all children under 6 live in poverty; indeed, half the black children in America are poor. The poor are minorities: The poverty rate among blacks in general is nearly triple what it is among whites; among Latinos, the poverty rate is twice the Anglo rate. Most of the poor stay in poverty only a few years. But some remain poor much longer. While these are fewer, their impact is surprisingly large. They are an underclass of street-corner men, welfare-dependent women, delinquents and criminals--those hard-core poor left behind in the ghetto after the war on poverty helped others move up and out.
Effect of recovery
Most experts think the poverty rate will go down when the figure for 1984 is made public next month. They believe that recovery from the most recent recession will have gone on long enough for its effect to be felt. Because of this Reagan recovery, jobs should now be available for many of those who were thrown out of work--and this ought to counteract some of the effects of the President's anti-poverty cuts. However, many of these economic experts think the unemployment rate will level off at a high plateau, between 7% and 7.5%. Although some expect the poverty rate to continue to drop, most economists think that it will mirror the unemployment rate and level off at a high plateau--near 13% for the foreseeable future.
But people who are poor have one abiding hope: Americans are not pleased about the lot of the impoverished. A national poll by The Times shows that the public has an enormous sympathy for the poor. More than three-quarters of the public think poverty is the proper concern of the federal government and that there must be substantial government involvement in efforts to ease it. At the same time, Americans have doubts about the government's expertise. Most feel the government has not been effective in its battles against poverty because it does not know what to do about it. But most Americans want their government to take action--and they do not like Reagan's cuts in anti-poverty programs.
From the very outset, the President has spelled out exactly why he thinks these cuts have been necessary. "We've lived beyond our means and then financed our extravagance on the backs of the American people," Reagan said during his first news conference after taking his oath of office. "We think the time has come where there has to be a change of direction. . . . And it's going to begin with reducing government spending." He subsequently said his reductions would be made in social spending and not from the military budget because "government's first responsibility is national security."
David A. Stockman, director of the Office of Management and Budget and the chief architect of Reagan's cuts, declined to be interviewed for this story, the first in a five-part series on poverty in America. However, Stockman has said in congressional testimony that the cuts have improved incentives for the poor to better themselves--and, at the same time, targeted aid to the "truly needy" and reduced or eliminated aid to those who are not poor.
He has denied that Reagan's policies have been too harsh, or that government programs for the poorest of the poor have been damaged, much less destroyed. "The poor are still being helped impressively," he declared. "The rich are still helping to pay for the safety net on which the less fortunate depend."
It has been 25 years now since John Kennedy came to Eureka Hollow. Roger Luster is 36, a husky man in jeans, an old shirt and a tractor cap. His wife, Doris, is 23. She goes by Dobie and wears brown cords and a blue shirt. She carries the youngest of their three children on her hip. All are boys: Jesse is 5, Tony 3 and Timmy 1. They live down the hollow a piece from where Roger grew up. His old yellow house has been torn down--to make room for graves that had to be moved when the coal company strip-mined the cemetery. Today Roger lives in a wooden five-room house with a sagging black tar-paper roof. Its faded white walls are cracking, and the green trim on the windows is chipping. He pays $15 rent.
He dropped out of school two years after Kennedy's visit and went to work at 16. He held several jobs until three years ago, when coal mining slumped and he got laid off. Roger went on welfare. West Virginia makes recipients work for their checks. It calls its program "workfare." Roger gets $360 a month--and is required to be a garbage man in the nearby town of Keystone. He works 10 days to earn his welfare check. He gets $25 for gasoline to drive to town--and $270 worth of food stamps. His cash income, $4,320 a year, puts him $8,240 below the poverty line--a threshold the government uses to define poverty for a family his size.
No phone, no washer
He has no phone; he can't afford one. Water runs into the house through a rubber hose. Dobie heats it on the stove. Gravity fills the toilet, but there is not enough pressure for a washer--even if he could afford one. Dobie uses a machine with a wringer--and two iron tubs, one pitted with rust. "You take a woman that does that stuff, and she don't ever get nothing--it's rough like that, see," Roger said one afternoon not long ago, during a break on the garbage truck. He stared down at his boots. "She has it rough."
So does he. "I own a '74 Plymouth. Thing needs a clutch. I'll ride it as long as it'll ride, and that'll be it."
In the winter, when there is a foot of snow and it's 22 degrees below zero, the wind blows through his house as if the walls weren't there. In a sense, they're not. The house has no insulation. "You got weatherboard on the outside and the same old weatherboard on the inside. Strips. Some places the strips hook together and some don't, and then when the wind blows, it just comes right on in."
Come the snow, Roger drags a bed into the living room next to the wood and coal stove. He, Dobie and the three boys climb in, so the youngsters don't freeze. Roger stays awake all night to keep the fire burning and to keep an eye on the stove and the chimney.
"You've got to stay awake, or you'll burn down, and that's just the way it is, see. If it's down below zero weather, you don't know how hot you're really getting the stove, because the house is that cold. And the stove will turn red on you. If it goes and turns red on you, you've got to get it cooled down, because it'll burn the house down. I've dozed off and had it turn red on me before and had to jump up and get it real fast, you know. My brother had his house burn down on account of that."
Jesse, the 5-year-old, goes to kindergarten this September. Workfare provides an extra allowance for school clothes. If it doesn't cover everything Jesse needs, Dobie will let the rent or maybe the light bill go unpaid to buy him pants and shirts. Then she'll scramble through October and November to catch up. Whatever it takes, though, Roger will be certain the kids get something for Christmas.
"That's only once a year," he said, "and they're little."
Jesse's front teeth have rotted out. Roger thinks it might be a calcium deficiency. Medical care that comes with workfare covers dentists, but case workers say that Roger needs special authorization because Jesse's problem is so severe. The family will wait until his adult teeth grow in. If they rot and the state denies coverage, Roger has no idea what he'll do. "I'll never get the money myself."
After the first of the month, when Roger gets his welfare check, and after the 12th, when he gets his food stamps, Dobie cooks spaghetti and hamburger and even steak now and then. But toward the end of the month, things run out. Then Dobie makes beans and potatoes. "She runs out of bread, and then she's got to make it. And we eat a whole lot of gravy at the end of the month. But it ain't water gravy, that's one good thing." Sometimes everything runs out. Then Roger tries to borrow a little money from friends and kin. When he can't get Winstons, he buys a tin of Prince Albert and some cigarette papers. He gets the Prince Albert for 99 cents and the papers for 35 cents, and he has learned to roll cigarettes thin enough to make as many as three packs. "I've run out. Had to borrow Prince Albert off my brother-in-law."
A couple of weeks later, his work on the garbage truck finished for the month, Roger sat and talked in the living room of his house. On a shelf are plastic roses and a bust of Jesus. Dobie's paisley wallpaper is peeling. The embarrassment of poverty is considerable, he said. "People look down on you. You're on welfare, and they figure you're freeloading, that you're getting something for nothing. And they don't think that it's right. Sometimes they'll joke around and carry on and stuff like that. You don't like it. But you ain't going to say a lot about it, because it might be one of your friends that's joking with you.
"I'd rather have a job and be working. I guess everybody would. If you see somebody working in the mines, you know, they got money or something, you know, and they go buy their kids something, and you can't--that's hard, stuff like that. It's just rough. Or my wife. Working in a mine or something, you could go buy her something. And stuff like that's real rough.
"She gets after me sometimes. You know, just that she ain't got no money to buy stuff which other people get and stuff like that, see. It's aggravating. What can I do about it? I mean, what am I going to do? Ain't nothing--I can't--you can't up and leave to go somewhere where you ain't got nowhere to stay or nothing, you ain't got no money to leave with."
Roger doesn't say much to Dobie about it, but he has an overwhelming worry. "It ending. Something happening, you know, where they shut the program off or something like that, then not knowing how to feed your kids or nothing, see. Reagan stopping it all. And then how would you ever feed the kids? I worry about that. See, a lot of people get onto the program and they think it's going to last forever. But you know, something might happen to shut it down, and I don't know what a man would do. That's what worries me about programs like this, where if you had a job, see, you'd have a little bit of security.
"Why shouldn't he feed us? We're here. I paid taxes--I paid taxes for 16 years where I worked, paid in taxes, you know, to feed people, so I don't understand. He shouldn't cut it out on us, should he? We'd be ruined. I don't know what we'd do. There ain't nothing else. Ain't going to find a job here. I don't want to be on the program, but you have to be on it because there's no choice. You got to feed your family."
There are other signs of desperation.
People in Eureka Hollow get their mail at the post office in Eckman. Last winter, someone broke into the old brass mail boxes.
Whoever did it stole food stamps.
Roger Luster's fears are fed by his memories of Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty. It went into retreat because Vietnam consumed resources and because local politicians felt threatened by Johnson's efforts to help the poor organize to gain political power. And now anti-poverty programs are in retreat again, this time for other reasons.
Americans are weary and wary. First, they are weary of the battle against poverty.
The Times poll, which surveyed 2,446 persons across the nation this April, showed that an overwhelming 89% think poverty will always be a major problem. Even among the poor, there is little hope that poverty will ever be wiped out. Respondents with incomes that make them officially poor think, by an 85% margin, that there always will be poor people in the United States--regardless of what anyone does.
Second, Americans are wary of the government's ability to do much about poverty.
The problem, they are convinced, is that the government, regardless of how competent it might be at other things, is simply incapable of dealing with poverty. Even if the government were willing to spend whatever is needed, 70% of Americans polled by The Times think that federal agencies do not know enough about poverty to end it. The taste for fighting poverty, clearly, has fallen to frustration.
More than half of the public thinks anti-poverty programs seldom work. More than half of the poor themselves are similarly convinced. About 39% of the public thinks anti-poverty money is spent on useless projects, and 42% thinks the money is intercepted and never gets to the poor people who need it.
One of the respondents to the poll was Paul Brinker, 24, a market researcher in Cleveland. He makes between $50,000 and $75,000 a year and lives in a middle-class neighborhood. To him, there is a built-in futility to the effort.
"Basically," he said, "I just don't think society has the will nor the resources or the ability to redistribute resources so that there isn't always a percentage of the population that's considered to be poor. I think society is designed in that fashion. I do not think this has to do with politicians or with what happened with the war on poverty.
"As I've learned more about the way society works, I've found that people with the most power have resources to employ to their best interest. And they have the ability to retain as much of their resources as possible. Those who have, they'll use a small percentage of what they've got to hold onto the rest. But those who don't have many resources, the poor, they do not have the resources to change the status quo or to hold onto what they've got."
Another respondent, Bob Rosenthal, 38, who works for the New York City Department of Finance, has decided that part of the problem is "the bureaucracies that dispense money. They eat a lot of money." Rosenthal, who earns between $40,000 and $50,000 a year, owns a brownstone near impoverished Bedford-Stuyvesant. "I see people walking the streets, looking for cans to pick up for a nickel deposit.
"If we had a social system that worked, they wouldn't be."
Because Americans like Brinker and Rosenthal are weary and wary, the political climate seems perfect for those who want to relegate the battle against poverty to the bottom of the public agenda. Since the public perceives the fight to be expensive, onerous and unwinnable, President Reagan, never a champion of social spending, seems at first glance to have acted within the temper of the times.
Congress resisted cuts
His cuts in the nation's anti-poverty programs have been numerous and deep. In many cases, the cuts would have been deeper if Congress hadn't resisted.
A study by economists D. Lee Bawden and John L. Palmer for the Urban Institute, a nonprofit Washington research organization that specializes in social problems and government policy, lists Reagan reductions through fiscal 1984 and their estimated impact on outlays in fiscal 1985. Among them are these:
--In Aid for Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), outlays down 14.3% from a projected $9.8 billion. Reagan wanted to cut them 28.6%.
--Food stamps, down 13.8% from $14.5 billion. Reagan wanted to cut them 51.7%.
These reductions, including those in the accompanying chart, are measured against outlays that would have been made had pre-Reagan policies been continued. In some instances, growth rates caused programs to expand even after the cuts, although less so than otherwise. In other instances, the Reagan cuts were large enough to cause actual reductions in the money spent. Most of the continued growth has been in programs with big budgets. However, about half the programs listed have had their spending actually reduced.
Stockman defends trims
In his congressional testimony, Stockman, the President's budget director, conceded that many social programs have been pared--but insisted that the effect was to "improve the targeting" of federal aid and that "these reforms do not reflect the picture of devastation critics have charged."
Bawden and Palmer agree with Stockman that the Reagan cuts have removed most of the least needy from the welfare rolls and targeted program benefits on the poor. "But, Administration claims to the contrary, there is also no question that the poor are not better off as a result," they said. "The Administration has suggested that benefits were retargeted on the poor, implying that aid was taken from the less needy and given to the more needy. In fact, this is not the case.
"In no entitlement programs were real (inflation-adjusted) benefits increased for the most needy when eligibility levels were reduced."
Only a few organizations lobby on behalf of the poor. The impoverished have little political clout. In the face of the Reagan cuts, they have been largely defenseless. And the Reagan reductions have been painful: While the Reagan cuts have removed higher-income recipients from eligibility for aid, they also have reduced the benefits received by people who remain eligible.
Indeed, politicians are much more reluctant to cut programs that include benefits for middle income people as well as the poor, such as Social Security and Medicare. As a result, these programs suffered less under the Reagan cuts.
The Urban Institute lists these consequences of the Reagan reductions:
—Between 400,000 and 500,000 families have been taken off Aid to Families with Dependent Children. An additional 300,000 have had their checks reduced on average between $150 and $200 a month. About 1 million fewer disadvantaged children are getting help through compensatory education. Some 400,000 people have lost their public service jobs. Another 1 million persons have lost their food stamps; almost everyone who still gets them receives fewer.
—About 1 million fewer families get housing aid and about 300,000 more will be living in substandard housing by the end of this year. Milk programs have ended at many schools; summer feeding programs are limited to the highest-poverty areas. Unemployment insurance runs out more quickly than before, stranding hundreds of thousands of recession-displaced workers with nowhere to turn but the dole.
These consequences, too, are measured against what would have occurred had pre-Reagan policies been continued. By and large, the poor who are the most dependent upon government aid have been affected only modestly. But if Reagan had gotten cuts of the size he requested, consequences for these poorest of the poor would have been more severe.
The public perceives these cuts as a blemish on the Reagan presidency.
Deep public sympathy
The Times poll shows deep public sympathy for the impoverished. Half the respondents describe most poor people as hardworking. Only a quarter thinks they are lazy. By two to one, the public rejects the view that the poor have less in-born ability and find themselves in poverty because of some innate defect--in character, for instance, or intelligence.
Despite their misgivings about the way the government has tried to help the poor so far, Americans believe firmly that federal agencies ought to mount an expanded effort. The Times survey shows that an overwhelming 73% of the public favors government action on behalf of the impoverished.
A majority, 57%, even say they would pay a 1% federal sales tax to help finance the effort.
Moreover, the poll shows a deep disapproval of Reagan's cuts in anti-poverty programs. Despite an overall 2-1 positive job rating, the public gives Reagan a 58% to 34% negative rating for his treatment of the poor.
Half the public thinks Reagan's budget cuts have left the truly needy unprotected. Most believe he cares more about rich people. Only 2% of the survey respondents think Reagan cares more about the poor.
Response is typical
Mary Camp, 45, a high school counselor in Gadsden, Ala., is typical. "We as the American people do care about our fellow man," she said. "I don't want to get maudlin or mushy, but I do think that we care. I grew up in a hardworking, fairly poor and very proud family. And my mother and father sacrificed, really sacrificed to give me an education. Later my father got a higher paid job. But when I went to school in my early years, they struggled to have food on the table and good clothes. We had no luxuries. And that is probably why I can relate to these people and know where they come from.
"Because of my opportunities--my parents' giving and providing me with an education--I've been able to live a comfortable life." Camp makes between $10,000 and $20,000 annually. She lives in an attractive neighborhood of private homes and trimmed lawns.
"But," she said, "a lot of people just don't have these opportunities.
"As a general rule, the poor are hardworking and really want to be self-sufficient. But from things I've read in the newspaper and seen on TV, it really seems that Reagan cares more for the rich and big business than for the little man. If he had it his way, Social Security and the other social programs would be eliminated--or at least changed."
Not technically poor
Unlike Mary Camp, Rob Green is poor--not technically poor, but poor in fact.
Like Roger Luster, he lives in West Virginia. But the two aren't neighbors. Green, 75, lives farther north, up in Dawes Hollow, off Cabin Creek, only half an hour from Charleston, the biggest city in the state.
They live on potatoes, beans, a little bacon, a few onions, wild poke greens and some Shawnee, a Virginia waterleaf they pick in the hills. They get eggs from their chickens, and they sell a few eggs to make a little extra money. It has been two years since they've had enough money to buy clothes. Last winter, they ran out of coal. Because they're both too old to dig their own, they tried to buy some. But they couldn't get anyone to haul it home for them, so they cut some wood. It burned out the fire bricks in the stove. Now they need a new stove.
House needs repairs
Their tar-papered house needs a roof. It could use plumbing. Their bathroom is an outhouse. For baths, Mary gets water from a pipe that brings it from a spring near the house, and she heats it on a propane burner.
Rob Green suffered a stroke a few months ago. A blind son, who lives next door and makes his way over by following a clothesline, looks after his folks as best he can. But he's barely getting by himself. And Rob and Mary Green need help. They have given up getting more money from the government.
"They're not for the poor man," he said, watching the world from his front porch. "They just for themselves. They're cutting the budget and cutting the budget, but they ain't cutting their wages. Unh nunh. They don't cut their wages. Yeah, but they're going to cut our checks, I reckon."
For a poor man like Rob Green, that and another cold winter could make all the difference.
Poverty is complex; Poor share work ethic, U.S. dream
July 29, 1985
From each paycheck, $33 goes to the doctor who set baby Reneesha's broken arm after she flipped off the bed. The rest of the money spreads thinly across too many bills. Dinners have sometimes been no more than mayonnaise sandwiches.
"Better I'd never met Ray," Ola said.
Another is Kenneth Jones of Baltimore, whose first inkling of money trouble came as a rumor around the office: "Reduction in forces, people called it."
A father of four, he had always tried to make the right moves. He went to college and studied accounting, but at graduation he landed no job. Too inexperienced, employers said.
Then a friend told him they were hiring at Amtrak. It was not college man's work, but it paid all right, $5.60 an hour.
Started as trackman
Kenneth started as a trackman, replacing heavy wooden ties. Then he was a machinist, and then the company let him bid on an office job. In time, he was making $29,500 a year, writing reports that went all the way to Congress. Finding his way to Amtrak seemed a flash of luck.
But he has not worked since the layoff 15 months ago and, at age 33, his pride is papered over with welfare checks and food stamps. There is a leak in the dining room ceiling that he cannot afford to fix. The children's aquarium is down to a single fish.
At a city job-placement center where he is something of a star job candidate, he is also among the saddest of cases. He has pretty well given up on getting a job as good as the one he lost. His grip on the middle class, once firm as a fist, has been easily wrenched open. Now he wonders how far he must fall.
"Every chance at a job turns out just to be a tease," said Kenneth, sturdy as a spike and thoughtfully well-spoken. "Meanwhile, my life is going by and my kids are growing up poor."
His new problem is too much experience: "They tell me, well, you've got an impressive work record here, and, oh, you've got a degree too; we wouldn't feel right offering a $12,000 job to someone of your caliber and credentials."
Illness brought poverty
Then there is Bubby Guest, a Brunswick, Ga., junkman, poor because he is sick. Poverty set upon him to stay while he was lying beneath a burned-out jalopy.
High blood pressure was causing unbearable headaches, and neither the pills nor the needle seemed to help. He was pulling out a transmission when he closed his eyes, hoping to ease the pain. He came to much later, and there remains a hole in his life that he can't quite remember.
"Been two or three years and I haven't worked since," said Bubby, 40, a shy, beefy man who barely parts his lips to talk. "Time was, I worked most any kind of job, mechanic, construction, cutting wood. No more, not with these headaches."
These days, he keeps an eye on daughter Missy, age 4. Sometimes he takes the old Mercury for a drive and searches through other people's garbage. He found an old fan that way, and it only needed oil to get it going.
Food stamps are of some help, but the Guests are not eligible for welfare. Georgia, like half the states, refuses to aid two-parent families.
"I'd have to leave Bubby to collect," said Geraldine Guest, 47. "And that would be a heartbreak."
So she makes beds at the Oleander Motel over on Glynn Avenue. The salary is $3.35 an hour, the minimum wage.
"On a good week, when the rooms are full and there's seven days' work, I can make $100, even $110," she said proudly, grateful for the job.
Poor man's America
Ola, Kenneth and Bubby are all anecdotes in a poor man's America. They are out there with welfare chiselers and wobbly men on street corners with bottles in their hands. There is a poor person to serve as evidence for most anything. Policy-makers sometimes fetch them from obscurity, using their stories to commend a social program or to condemn one to oblivion.
Ola, Kenneth and Bubby are all anecdotes in a poor man's America. They are out there with welfare chiselers and wobbly men on street corners with bottles in their hands. There is a poor person to serve as evidence for most anything. Policy-makers sometimes fetch them from obscurity, using their stories to commend a social program or to condemn one to oblivion.
Scholars attempt to go beyond the anecdotes, but the research is perplexing: If only there was some way to unwind a person's present and past, to measure gumption against frustration, to balance opportunity against inertia. Each situation is intricately knotted--part economics, part sociology, part soap opera.
What if Ola and Ray had not kissed that night in Winter Haven, Fla.? What if Kenneth's first job had been in a growth industry instead of the railroad? What if there is a cure for Bubby's headaches in the sample bag of the doctor in the next town?
Still, there is some pattern to the statistical weave.
Numbers tell much about the poor in general, if not in particular--who they are, how they became poor, how long they will stay that way.
Living in poverty, for instance, is often thought to mean living off the dole or welfare, the federal program formally called Aid to Families with Dependent Children. But only one-third of the poor collect AFDC. Of those, 66% are children.
Snares young, old
The poor are a far larger group, remarkable for their diversity. In 10 years' time, fully one-fourth of the nation slips for some time into poverty, studies show. It snares the young and the old, the hearty and the lame, the wicked and the virtuous.
Census data from 1983, the latest year available, shows the poor have a general commitment to the workplace: Excluding the elderly, the disabled, students and mothers with children under age 6--persons society does not ordinarily expect to hold jobs--more than two-thirds of the heads of poor households do work at least part-time, including 77% of the men and 55% of the women.
"The numbers show that poverty is far more a problem of job availability than work ethic," said Sheldon Danziger, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, which compiled these statistics from census data. "Obviously, there are some bums out there. But, mostly, people are working or looking for work."
Another problem is that many workers simply are not paid much.
In 1983, nearly 4.5 million full-time, year-round workers earned less than $6,700, then the poverty threshold for a family of two, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another 6.5 million earned less than $9,999, below the poverty line for a family of four.
Of these low-paid workers, 1.8 million are poor. The rest sidestep poverty only because more than one person in the family has a job.
$3.50 an hour
Jackie Flanagan, cloth cutter in a Baltimore rag factory, makes only $3.50 an hour, and wonders if work is worth the trouble. The monthly take-home pay, about $506, is only $25 more than she received from welfare.
She started the job last December. Five lively youngsters, ages 3 to 11, were driving her stir crazy, and the characters on the afternoon soap operas had become more familiar than real life.
"I watched those stories so much that I dreamed about them," said Jackie, 33, a round-faced woman who speaks almost in a whisper.
Her routine now is to rise at 5:30, lay out the children's clothes, wash and dress the littlest ones. Then she makes lunches before leaving the children with the next-door neighbor.
The subway takes her downtown. From there, she catches either the No. 23 or the No. 15 bus. Both go down Franklintown Road, and it is a short walk to the factory. At 8 a.m., she starts slicing rags from a bolt of cloth.
"I enjoy the work," she said, her voice betraying her uncertainty. "The people are nice. They let you go on break when you feel like it."
Pleasant or not, the job is hard on her budget. She pays her neighbor $50 a week for baby-sitting. She also pays $8.50 a week in carfare.
Worse yet, the job offers no health insurance. Because she is no longer on welfare, the state will soon take away her Medicaid card. Every flu and cough the children catch will mean less money for groceries.
"Marcia, the 3-year-old, has asthma," she said, the worry clear on her face. "I didn't know working would end up costing me money. Mentally, I want to keep working. Financially, I don't know if I can."
Economists sometimes examine poverty as if it had two doors--one an entrance, one an exit. They want to classify how people generally get in, how long they stay, how they get out.
To a great extent, the answers are obvious.
For a family headed by a man, the biggest problem is loss of wages--his or his wife's.
This, for instance, was true for Gilbert Maxwell, the cleanup man in the Georgia shrimp factory. The Maxwells were not always poor.
For a few years, Pauline made beds at the Holiday Inn. Together, they earned more than $20,000. They had begun looking for a house in the country, where the four boys could play in the woods and Gilbert could build a machine shop out back.
"Really, by now we ought to have that house," he said.
But one afternoon last year, a sharp pain twisted through Pauline's chest while she was standing out front, gabbing with her cousin. She fell to the ground, stunned and confused. Heart attack, she mumbled, and she was right. Friends rushed her to the hospital.
The 25-year-old mother lay in intensive care for three days. The Maxwells will not break loose from poverty until the doctors say she can work again.
Loss of a man
For families headed by women, however, the biggest problem is not loss of a job but loss of a man. The trap door into poverty opens with divorce or separation or a birth out of wedlock.
Barbara Hollins, a Brunswick, Ga., welfare mother, knows much about this, for she has had two marriages, two divorces, three great loves, six children and a lifetime of hopscotching back and forth across the poverty line.
"Until men change and they want to support these kids, there's always going to be women like me," Barbara, 36, said in an angry monotone, shushing her two youngest ones, Gregory, not yet 2, and Destiny, just 6 months.
In her version of a turbulent lifetime, things looked so much better when she was 18. She had started junior college, and every day a handsome man named Roger carried her books home from school. He doted on her and she loved it. He did not lose interest until she told him she was pregnant.
The couple were married under the shotgun gaze of Barbara's mother, and it made an awkward beginning for a young pair who preferred other plans. Both worked off and on at jobs they did not like. They argued about money. Barbara had a second baby. The marriage lasted four years.
So she was a perfect setup for John, who said a woman's place was in the home and a man's on the job. He planned to join the merchant marine and promised to give her $1,000 a month. Mostly, she said, he gave her two more babies and several dreary years. Barbara vowed never to be fooled again.
That Alfonso entered her life and remains there still, contributing so little money, is something of an embarrassment to her. He is the father of the babies at her feet, and he gives her but $25 a week. She depends on welfare and food stamps to get by until she finishes a course in clerical work. She hopes to be a file clerk.
"I have high blood pressure, and the doctor told me the birth control pill is too risky," she said apologetically, as an afterthought to her story.
Poverty researchers wonder how long people like Barbara Hollins, Jackie Flanagan, Gilbert Maxwell and the rest will stay poor. Is poverty often a long-term affliction?
The question has two correct, if very different, answers.
On one hand, most people who tumble into poverty during a 10-year period are short-timers, according to researchers at the University of Michigan. By age, sex and race, they reflect the population as a whole. Two-thirds stay poor less than three years.
Joanne Harper, for one, is poor for now but probably not for long. She has moxie and smarts--and no small children.
For nearly a decade, she worked bridge construction, carrying steel and running a machine that smooths concrete. Then, last December, she quit.
"I was getting so nervous up there, too shaky to go on," said Joanne, 47, a husky, red-haired woman separated from her husband.
She lives in Baltimore with her two teen-agers, in the same neighborhood where she grew up, It is like a little Peyton Place, she said. Everybody knows everyone else's business.
That is one reason she will not apply for food stamps. Hard times are so humiliating. People see you go into the food stamp office, then they see you at the grocery.
Years back, during another bad time, she took the stamps and she was always afraid she would be spotted. She stopped going to Food Town and began shopping at Steve's Supermarket, way up on Charles Street.
"I can understand how people feel," she said. "It bothers me when I see them with the food stamps, buying meat and real butter."
But, then, unlike many of the poor, Joanne has resources. She has some savings to draw upon, and she has some skills and a strong work record. She expects to hire on as a maid when the new Sheraton opens downtown.
"I'll get a job soon, no problem," she said confidently.
But if there are a great number of short-timers like Joanne rotating through poverty every 10 years, there also is a group deep-stuck--enough of them, actually, to be a slight majority in any single year of that decade.
These deep-stuck poor require not just a temporary boost back up, but long-term support--and even guidance on how to maintain a foothold.
"These tend to be the people you'd expect--the poorly educated, blacks, unwed mothers," Harvard economist David Ellwood said.
The work ethic of this group also is harder to grasp. It is often complicated by disability of the body or spirit, and the very momentum of failure.
At times, the long-term poor seem buffeted amid the gear work of some diabolical Rube Goldberg contraption: She got pregnant so she quit school so she never learned fractions. He was laid off so he robbed a store so he went to prison. She never worked so she has no experience so she can't get a job.
"I never knew what that word 'location' meant," said Linda Phillips, 31, a Baltimore welfare mother enrolled in a remedial course about how to look for work. Job applications had always confused her.
"All that word means," she said, "is they want the address."
By and large, the many criticisms of the welfare system involve the long-term poor. It is argued that, for them, government assistance has become a way of life. They are addicted to a federal fix, their submission complete.
One of the leading critics is Charles Murray, author of the controversial book "Losing Ground." He complains that poverty programs have given the poor the wrong signals, suggesting to them that the system is to blame for their plight and welfare is a respectable alternative.
"To someone who is not yet persuaded of the satisfactions of making one's own way, there is something laughable about a person who doggedly keeps working at a lousy job for no tangible reason at all," he wrote.
In some cases, the argument is undoubtedly true. If some welfare mothers are badly prepared for the workplace, others simply weigh the pros and cons of a job and decide it is not worth the toil. Going on welfare seems to them a sensible personal and economic choice.
For Nancy Papadopoulos, a nimble-witted Minneapolis divorcee with a year of college, work would not be hard to find. But a job is not as important to her as being a traditional mother to her three boys.
"If I put my kids in day care, it's like making them work a job," said Nancy, 29, emotion caught in her throat. "The little one cried when I left him, and they were too tired to eat when I got them home.
"I want my boys to grow up with my morals and my beliefs, not some other lady's. I want them to know I bnvv them."
Welfare benefits vary from state to state, depending on the state contribution. Minnesota is relatively generous, and each month Nancy gets a $611 check and $124 in food stamps. She pays only $96 rent for a federally subsidized town house that might ordinarily cost four times that. The Catholic school on York Avenue allows her oldest boy to attend for free.
$2,000 a month
"I'd probably need $2,000 a month to make getting off welfare worthwhile," she said. "So I really shouldn't work unless I get an excellent job."
So, inevitably, there is much conjecture about how often a steady welfare check keeps the Nancys of America from a job. It is another of those questions that require mind-reading for a certain answer.
There are indications, however, that Nancy Papadopoulos is actually in the minority--that most welfare mothers would prefer to dress each morning and head out the door.
Nearly half the states, including California, have been experimenting with some kind of "workfare," requiring welfare recipients to participate in intensive job searches, and sometimes community work, in return for their checks.
The Times Poll shows that 59% of the poor have a favorable impression of workfare, 33% have not heard of it and only 3% have an unfavorable impression. In fact, the poor endorse the idea slightly more than the non-poor.
Similar results have been noted by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., a nonprofit group that has been evaluating the workfare programs.
Finding child care
"The mothers' main problem is finding child care," said Judy Gueron, the group's executive vice president. "And if they find child care, then the question is whether they pay out more in carfare and day care than they make."
But welfare mothers usually are considered the most motivated of the hard-core unemployed. Often their problem is simply getting a start.
There are others who have dodged in and out of the workplace, and employers consider them the riskier hires. Largely, they are men. Generally, they are unskilled. Frequently, they have taken to the ways of the street.
Karl Marx called the worst of such people "social scum." To De Tocqueville, they were "rabble." Dickens described them as "the dangerous classes."
These days, the catchall term most often used is the underclass. It refers to a miasma of welfare-dependent women, street hustlers, petty criminals, the homeless and others who have drifted from society's mainstream.
"It isn't just that they're poor," Richard Nathan, a poverty expert at Princeton and a former official in the Richard M. Nixon Administration, said of the underclass. "It is that they are hard to love and hard to help. It is the people who threaten us."
Experts are not quite sure how to define the group, let alone measure its size. Estimates most often range between 2 million and 5 million. Like the others in poverty, they each have a story, theirs most often a webbing together of mishaps and misdeeds.
Among them is Donald McDuffie, 28, who once labored for seven steady years as a furniture mover. Then he argued with the boss. "I quit" is what Donald says when he gets angry.
He moved to Minneapolis, where he has relatives. When another job did not come easily, he became a foot soldier for a bad bunch dealing in phony prescriptions. Each time he got some painkillers, he took home $50.
From that, he moved on to forging stolen payroll checks. He got them from a buddy later killed in a dice game over on DuPont Avenue. In the last batch Donald signed, there were eight checks that would have netted him $713. Instead, they got him a year in jail.
Out of prison since August, he lives on a monthly $199 general assistance check from the state. He has looked for work at Honeywell and Control Data and the other big companies. He has been to the factories and the warehouses and the filling stations.
"I go to a lot of places and the first thing they ask is, do I have a criminal record," said Donald, a well-muscled man sagging in a torn sofa. "Well, I tell them the truth because honesty is the best policy. But then I feel the vibes, like they don't want anything to do with me."
Second chances are scarce.
"If push comes to shove, I'm going back to what I did before," he said. "That's right. I won't be the man on the bottom all the time."
These anecdotes and the people who tell them go on into the millions, 35.3 million actually. In America, the poor are primarily victims of the very things that bless others--luck and love and children, the fragile gifts of body and mind, the sheer unpredictability of life itself.
Those most vulnerable are the elderly, the disabled, the poorly educated, mothers abandoned by their husbands or lovers, workers brushed aside by the nervous hand of the economy.
There are poor people even harder-working than Gilbert Maxwell and others more hooked on welfare than Nancy Papadopoulos. There are those more proud than Joanne Harper and those more defeated than Bubby Guest.
But whatever their problems, a slackness of spirit is rarely at the root. Most of the able-bodied poor want to work--and do so. Most share the dreams of an industrious nation. Most want to fit.
They are people like us, their poverty the icy curve on a hazardous road.
Times researchers Nina Green and Lorna Nones contributed to this story.
'Got no choice'; True victims of poverty are the children
By Bob Drogin
July 30, 1985
Under a glaring sun, the battered gray trailer stands baking by parched corn and soybean fields. Inside, 16-year-old Barbara Pryor brushes flies from the face of her 7-month-old son, Jerome. The infant blinks but doesn't move. Born prematurely, he is undersized and listless.
"He's sick a lot," said the unmarried teen-age mother, a ninth-grade dropout. "He gets worms. But sometimes he be sick and I can't get nobody to take me to the doctor."
On a block of front porches and pickups in Peoria, Ill., Debra Baron's three school-age children wait as their mother carries home a brown bag of eggs, soup and beans from a church food kitchen. Her husband, Rick, laid off in 1981 from a factory job paying nearly $13 an hour, now earns less than $10 a day driving a cab. Despite welfare and food stamps, hunger forces Baron and her three children to scour the nearby streets for empty soda cans to cash in.
'Out of everything'
"It's terrible to be a garbage picker to have enough to eat," she said. "But at the end of the month you're out of food. The last seven days are the worst. You're out of everything."
And by burned-out buildings in the Bronx, 15-year-old Ronald Richardson patiently fills plastic jugs from a dripping fire hydrant. Although his mother works as a New York City welfare clerk, they live in a condemned tenement in a dimly lit apartment with no water, gas or heat. The bathroom ceiling has collapsed. Rats roam the dark, rubble-strewn halls.
"Every day, I go to the fire hydrant to get water for cooking, to clean dishes and to wash up for school," the shy eighth-grade student said as the pop song "We Are the World" blasted through a broken window. "I got no choice."
Across America, an increasing number of children also have no choice. Urban and rural, black and white, they are the true victims of poverty.
Between 1979 and 1983, the number of poor children soared by 3.7 million to 13.8 million, according to government reports. By the most recent estimate, 22.2% of America's children under age 18--the highest rate in two decades--live in impoverished families. Despite the increase, fewer children receive basic government aid, and what they do get is less generous.
"You're talking about more hunger," said Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, a nonprofit, Washington-based children's advocacy group. "You're talking about more children being abused. You're talking about homelessness and poor health. You're talking about more kids with birth defects. . . . You're talking about the difference between life and death."
Hardest hit are the youngest and most vulnerable: One in four children under age 6 is poor. Family type is critical: Half of all poor children live in families without fathers. And race is crucial: Nearly half of all black children, more than one-third of all Latino youngsters, compared to one-sixth of all white children, are poor. All told, nearly 40% of America's 35.3 million poor people are children.
According to the Census Bureau definition, a family of four is poor if its annual income falls below $10,610. But such cold numbers do not reveal the human dimensions of poverty, nor the wrenching hardships of millions of children in the world's richest nation.
In more than 100 interviews with families, educators, social workers, doctors, nutritionists, economists, government officials and others around the country, The Times found child poverty a growing, pervasive problem from Iowa's failed family farms to Houston's once-affluent suburbs, from Boston's crowded soup kitchens to Youngstown's depressed blue-collar neighborhoods, from Mississippi shanties to hungry and homeless youngsters in California's wealthy Orange County.
"We're seeing a lot more hungry kids now,' said Jean Forbath, director of Share Our Selves, a nonprofit service agency at Rea Community Center in Costa Mesa. "We can tell they're hungry when they tear into a bag of food and grab a crust of bread."
In May, she said, the group gave food, shelter, medical care or cash to 200 poor families a day--9,500 persons in all, more than half of them children. About 470 children were homeless and living in "cars, parks and scrungy motels," she said.
Evidence of malnutrition
In America's breadbasket, the Illinois Department of Public Health last year estimated that there were 38,000 to 43,000 "chronically undernourished low-income preschool children" in the state. In Chicago, where city officials estimate that up to half the city's children are poor, doctors found that 30% of children under age 2 visiting Cook County Hospital's pediatric clinic in June, 1983, showed evidence of malnutrition.
"Many had been given infant formula that was highly diluted because their mothers couldn't afford to buy enough formula," said Dr. Agnes Lattimer, president of the Illinois chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
America's poor children are not the gaunt starving faces of Ethiopia, or the ragged street beggars of Calcutta. But for millions of them the suffering is very real. Consider:
--More babies are dying. The death rate among infants aged 1 month to 1 year increased by 5.6% in 1983, while a 20-year decline in infant mortality has tapered off for the last two years. The number of women receiving inadequate prenatal care has grown, and a record number of teen-age mothers are producing more babies at risk of mental retardation, cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness and other birth defects.
"When you talk about infant mortality, it's not just living and dying that counts, but the number that live with very costly mental and physical disabilities," said Gov. Richard W. Riley of South Carolina, head of the Southern Regional Task Force on Infant Mortality, which covers the region with the worst infant death rates.
--More children are at risk. Every state has reduced health services for poor mothers and children since 1981. Most states also have cut or eliminated health education and illness prevention programs, including immunization campaigns, efforts to eliminate lead-based paint and rat control. And the federal government's Medicaid program (called Medi-Cal in California) covers half a million fewer children today than in 1976, when child poverty was lower by one-third.
"Without Medicaid, they fall between the cracks of the medical care system," said Dr. Victor Sidel, president of the American Public Health Assn. "If there is a desperate medical emergency, they can get care in the emergency room. But for immunizations, for normal medical or dental care, for preventive care, access is extremely limited or impossible."
--More children are hungry or poorly nourished. Three million children have been cut from school lunch programs since 1981, while food stamp benefits have fallen. A Harvard University study estimates that at least 20 million Americans, most of them children, now run out of food stamps and go hungry for several days each month. Although severe malnutrition is rare, the study says "silent undernutrition" is common, causing anemia, stunted growth and what doctors call "failure to thrive."
'Hidden time bomb'
"From a health perspective, it literally is a hidden time bomb," said J. Larry Brown, a Harvard School of Public Health nutritionist who directed the study. "If adequate nutrition is not delivered, the brain is going to be smaller, fewer brain cells will develop and cognitive development will be impaired."
--More children are failing school or dropping out. About a million fewer children are served by compensatory education programs, while most youth job training programs have been severely cut or eliminated. And new studies show that children bear the brunt when unemployment forces a family into poverty: Stress produces an increase in family violence, divorce, suicide, mental illness, alcohol and drug abuse, homicides, accidents and other serious problems.
"It creates a threat to the stability of the family and ultimately to the development of the child," said Dr. M. Harvey Brenner, professor of behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Rate drops, rises again
What caused the alarming growth in child poverty?
In the 1960s, the nation's booming economy and President Lyndon B. Johnson's war on poverty nearly halved the child poverty rate, cutting it to a record 14% by 1969. But the rate climbed slowly back to 16% in the 1970s.
The problem, worried social scientists warned, was a "feminization of poverty." The number of poor single women raising families doubled within a decade to about 19% of all families. More than half their children were poor, three out of four if the mother had never married.
But the real explosion began in 1979, pushing 3.7 million more children into poverty in four years. It was the sharpest growth since the government began measuring poverty.
This time, a weak economy and cuts in Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the major federal-state welfare program, were chiefly to blame, according to congressional studies.
First, rapid inflation in 1979 followed by rising unemployment and back-to-back recessions between 1980 and 1982 pushed more than 1.8 million school-age children below the poverty line, according to a Congressional Budget Office study in December, 1984.
Second, Reagan Administration budget cuts in 1981 caused an estimated 1 million children to lose AFDC eligibility, according to a May, 1984, General Accounting Office study. Between 1981 and 1984, federal spending for welfare fell by 19% while the average monthly caseload fell 14%.
Additional cuts in Medicaid, food stamps, maternal health, child nutrition, education and other social programs exacerbated the welfare cuts. All told, federal spending fell by 11% in about 25 federal programs affecting children since 1981, according to a study prepared for the Urban Institute last December.
"In general, the federal government has abandoned children," said Madeleine H. Kimmich, author of the study. "Where states have picked up the burden, they've done all right. But a lot of states haven't, and a lot of children have fallen through the cracks."
Although the number of female-headed families has continued to rise, the impact has been overshadowed by the larger growth in poor two-parent families since 1978. Indeed, the "relatively small shifts in household composition . . . did not contribute significantly to the increase in the number of poor children," according to a 670-page study of children in poverty issued in May by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office.
As long as unemployment stays high and welfare payments stay low, the future does not look much better, experts say.
"The poverty rate among children is not apt to drop very sharply, and large numbers of children will almost certainly be poor for some years to come," Congressional Budget Office Director Rudolph G. Penner told the House Ways and Means Committee on May 22.
Who is hurt and how? Making up the answer is a broad mosaic of disparate, often desperate, pieces:
Beaten as a child, Gladys Vallanilla ran away at 12 from her mother to live on the hard, cold streets in Hartford, Conn. Unmarried, unemployed and uneducated, she had her first child at 15. Three others soon followed. Welfare, Medicaid and food stamps helped pay the bills.
"Really, I didn't plan to have no kids," said the 23-year-old, shy, thin, black-haired woman. "They just popped out."
But the second child, Eveline, was born early and weighed less than four pounds. She died of pneumonia nine months later. The fourth child, a boy, was stillborn last year.
"It's like having hell in the family," said Vallanilla, crying softly in the fading afternoon light of her city-owned home. "There's two in my life I lost, a boy and a girl. And I think about it every day. And I suffer, and I still think about them, and I still don't know why they die."
Hartford doctors also are perplexed. This graceful Colonial-era city of about 136,000 people on the Connecticut River is the capital of a state boasting the nation's second-highest per capita income, and white-collar headquarters for the nation's insurance industry. Traffic surges and business bustles around imposing office towers and government complexes.
But when the office workers return to the suburbs, they retreat from a city with the nation's fourth-highest poverty rate.
Heavily black and Latino, more than half of Hartford's preschool children are impoverished. Salvation Army soup trucks and church kitchens attract hundreds of families and young children. Despite three major hospitals and two health clinics, a study last year found that 30% of Hartford's residents had no regular source of medical care.
Partially as a result, Hartford's death rate for infants under a year old in 1983 was 15.9 per 1,000 live births--down from 24.7 in 1977 but still nearly 50% higher than the national rate. In several of Hartford's poorest areas, the infant mortality rate is triple the nation's.
'Too early or too small'
"The principal reason babies die is they're born too early or too small," said Dr. Stewart Wolff, Hartford's director of maternal and child health. "And there's a direct link between being poor and having a baby who dies."
The link is medical care and age. Only 40% of Hartford's poorest pregnant women register for prenatal care in their first trimester, officials estimate. Only about one-third of the eligible mothers are enrolled in federal and state nutrition supplement programs. And a Community Council report in February noted that "60%-80% of Hartford primary care physicians do not routinely accept Medicaid reimbursement."
"Hospitals have started closing their doors to the poor, the near-poor and the uninsured poor," Wolff said. "In some hospitals, it now takes 8 to 10 weeks for a poor pregnant woman to get an appointment. And if she's in her third trimester and has diabetes, all the medical technology in the world isn't going to help the baby."
In addition, the younger the mother, the riskier the pregnancy. Teen-age mothers are 40% more likely to have premature or low birth-weight babies and thus have the highest share of infant deaths. In Hartford, one out of four babies is born to a teen-ager, more than twice the national rate.
"The problem is children having children," said Sherry Deane, a coordinator in a new five-year, $2.9-million project sponsored by the city, several foundations and corporations to coordinate and extend medical outreach and education programs in seven neighborhoods. "Once a teen-ager has one child, she is more than likely--in fact 80% likely--to have a second pregnancy unless there is intervention."
One in eight babies born in Hartford has a low birth weight--less than 5.5 pounds--Wolff said. In some neighborhoods, one infant in six has a low birth weight. And one in every 44 babies dies before its first birthday. Following the national pattern, black infants are nearly twice as likely to die as whites.
That has devastated low-income, black neighborhoods such as the Charter Oaks public housing project, a sprawling complex of graffiti-covered brick apartments in southwest Hartford. At the nearby Warburton Community Church, the Rev. Paul Ritter leafed through a small, red, dog-eared date book to count the toll.
"I did 13 infant funerals in 1983," he said softly. "I had 14 the year before. I had nightmares. I couldn't sleep. I was wiped out all the time. It got so I'd just go home and go to bed. So I stopped (doing the services). I hated burying babies."
The 23 students in Pearlie Mattison's fifth-grade class have special reasons not to like Hardeeville Elementary School, a 58-year-old decrepit red-brick institution nestled between tall pines and broad oaks in South Carolina's Low Country.
"Every time it rains, it comes in," one girl complained, pointing at a jagged, water-stained crack in the yellow wall.
"There are roaches and rats," said another. "The lights don't work," added a boy. "The paint peels off the walls," offered another student.
"It's a dump," shouted still another boy, as the children giggled.
But educational neglect is no joke in Jasper County. On April 10, the state Department of Education warned that four of the county's five public schools had failed minimum education requirements for the third straight year, and it threatened to cut funding and accreditation by September unless conditions improve.
"We've got serious and continuing problems," said Solomon E. Bonds, chief school administrator in Ridgeland, the county seat. "A few of our teachers were uncertified. . . . Many of the schools are old and have not been maintained to assure safety."
Bonds said $520,000 in emergency repairs will keep the schools open. But new paint and plaster will not solve the grinding rural poverty and overt racism that has given the 14,504 rural residents here what may be the worst schools in the nation's ninth-poorest state.
Set between Charleston and Savannah, Ga., Jasper County is a lush land of wind-swept marshes and Spanish moss, neat farms and sprawling plantations. But the rich scenery is deceptive.
One in eight homes lacks indoor plumbing. In 1982, residents earned an average of $6,144 a year, barely half the nation's average per capita income. Nine out of ten students are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. For some, it's the only meal.
'They want to eat'
"There are children who come in and they haven't eaten anything since lunch yesterday," said remedial reading teacher Molly Malloy. "They want to eat, not learn."
"We used to charge parents $15 or $17 a year for class workbooks," said Patricia A. Pilgreen, principal at Hardeeville Elementary School. "A lot couldn't pay, so we've reduced use of workbooks."
At Hardeeville High School, the hall clocks are all stopped at differ ent times. The marching band cannot afford uniforms to march in. Spanish is the only foreign language offered, but not in a language lab. In a recent achievement test, 87% of tenth graders scored below national norms. And only one in five graduates continues his or her education, half the state average.
"Kids from poor families do poorly, there's no question about it," Principal Bill Singleton Jr. said. "One of the disadvantages here is we cannot offer the programs, the curriculum, that students need."
Tax hikes rejected
Despite the apparent need, Hardeeville's mostly-white voters rejected proposed property tax increases in 1982 and 1983 to improve public schools. Both times, opponents argued in full-page ads that the tab of $10 million to $13 million was too high.
But others blame racism. Jasper County's public schools are virtually segregated today, 15 years after separate black and white schools were officially closed. About 790 white students attend three new, all-white, private schools. The public schools are overwhelmingly black.
"It wasn't a financial thing," said George H. Spare, Hardeeville town administrator, of the failed referendum. "White parents don't want to pay to send black children to school. . . . The sad thing is the private schools are no better."
"It boiled down to a racial thing," agreed Bill Hornung, editor of Low Country Weekly. He said the tiny Hardeeville paper received a bomb threat and was "deluged" with angry letters and phone calls after he endorsed the school referendum in a mildly worded column noting that "40% of (county) residents won't be able to read this editorial."
Help may be coming. After 14 weeks of heated debate, the state Legislature passed a penny sales tax last year to improve education across the state. In the first year, teachers' salaries and requirements were raised, special programs were added for both gifted and remedial students, attendance is up, truancy down.
Whether it is enough for Hardeeville's poor is still unclear.
"Education is just not a priority in the community," said Veronica Thomas, a first-grade teacher and mother of three. "The truth is, this town neglects children."
Bobetta Bowcott saw her 10-year marriage and comfortable home collapse after her husband was laid off in June, 1983, from a $12.05-an-hour job assembling yellow Caterpillar bulldozers and graders outside Peoria, Ill. He began drinking and beating her, she said.
"Once, I was purple from here to the top of my head," said the soft-spoken, freckled 28-year-old woman, holding her hand across her chest. "Even my ears were black and blue. There were bald spots where he'd pulled my hair out."
Late on May 9, after she was knocked down again, she took her three frightened daughters to her sister's. The next morning, she said, she obtained a court order to keep her husband out of their home and to force him to seek counseling.
"It affects everyone," she said tearfully. "Especially the children."
Strain is too much
Her neighbor, Patricia Marx, 36, finally broke down last fall. The strain had grown ever since her husband, Phillip, was laid off from his $500-a-week union job at Caterpillar's Mossville plant in June, 1982.
"I was in the hospital for nine days for a nervous breakdown over the humiliation of it all," said the short, red-haired mother of three young boys.
"The stress of feeling guilt, thinking maybe I did something wrong. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I lost 42 pounds in three weeks. I was afraid to eat for fear I'd be taking it out of my kids' mouth. . . . I got to the point of trying to commit suicide. I had pills. I thought of cutting my wrists. I thought I had no right to be here because I couldn't support my kids."
Such tragedies are increasingly common around Peoria, a one-time blue-collar boom town of 120,000 that lived--and now is dying--at the hand of the "great yellow God," the sprawling Caterpillar Tractor Co. Since 1981, Caterpillar has laid off more than 20,000 highly paid workers, while other local companies have laid off more than 7,000 other employees.
The human costs have been staggering. Local officials say a broad array of social ills has grown with Peoria's unemployment and poverty, including battering and divorce, child abuse and runaways, severe depression and mental problems, alcoholism and drug abuse, assaults and suicide.
"I can tell you stories of kids who take their own lives because they don't want to be a burden to mommy and daddy because they don't have any money," said Dr. Jack Gilligan, head of Peoria's Human Services Center, a private, nonprofit social service agency.
Last year alone, suicide calls to the center's emergency response team jumped from 348 to 468, psychiatric and mental health calls climbed from 1,319 to 1,649 and calls for such basic needs as food and shelter shot up from 552 to 695.
"We attribute this to the economic times in the community," Gilligan said. "These are families living in cars. Utilities being shut off and people not having heat. People running out of food. It's happening more and more."
'Taking it out on kids'
"It's kind of like Archie Bunker going on welfare," said Debra Oberg, a center family counselor. "It's just not in their plan. . . . So you have a lot of real depressed dads, and they have to take it out on someone, and a lot of them are taking it out on kids."
The center's adolescent counseling and treatment program has a three-month backlog for the first time. School officials say truancy is up and grade averages are down. "I see kids from unemployed homes, broken homes, as having more stress and less ability to solve their problems," said Jay McCormick, head counselor at Peoria High School.
"I got guys come in and cry," said Tony Green, president of the United Auto Workers Local 974 in East Peoria. "They've worked 12, 13, 14 years. They've never been without a job. They're losing their homes, their cars. They're fighting with their wives. They're fighting with their kids. They've never seen their kids hungry before."
"This was supposed to be the all-American city," said John Colgan, head of a regional Anti-Hunger Coalition that helps 30 food banks and soup kitchens in Peoria. "Well, we can say without a doubt that 10% of the local population needs emergency food services. That's 12,000 families a month."
Heads scout troop
Mike Gillam, 37, heads one such family. Laid off from Caterpillar last December after 12 years, he still heads a Boy Scout troop. His wife, Janet, who earns $85 a week as a secretary, is active in the League of Women Voters. Both take a strong interest in their three children's schools and sports.
"I went to work when I was 16," said Gillam, smoking and drinking coffee as the children finished homework on the dining room table. "I was middle class. I could afford to buy my kids shoes, new clothes, pay for lunch. Now they get free lunch at school. I never had my hand out except to help someone. . . . I gave to my church, gave to the United Way. Now I've had to accept food from them. That hurts."
"Right now, if my kids get sick, we couldn't pay it," Gillam added, clenching his fists and staring at the floor. "We'd have to sell the house. How's that for the American dream?"
It was long past midnight on a cold, windy Friday, and infants and children outnumbered adults in the dingy city-run emergency assistance office for the homeless and helpless in the south Bronx.
The 15 children, mostly curled up and dozing on hard plastic chairs under harsh fluorescent lights, were victims of evictions, fires, fights and fear. The dozen parents, mostly women, sat silently, some smoking cigarettes, and all waiting for beds in New York's overloaded shelter system.
"All I want to do is get another job, put my kids back in day care or with a baby sitter," said Yvonne Harris, 23, whose two infant daughters slept under a yellow flannel blanket. "I am not a vagrant."
Shelter to shelter
Indeed, Harris wore a neat brown corduroy business suit. But she and her daughters have been homeless, shuttling from shelter to shelter since an angry boyfriend evicted them last Christmas. Without a home, she lost her job as a secretary for a Manhattan insurance company. And unable to pay a baby sitter, she takes her children and their five plastic bags of clothing to every job and apartment interview.
"I drag 'em with me everywhere," she said.
As child poverty has grown, it has grown worst in large cities. More than 40% of New York City's children are poor, twice as many as in 1970, according to the nonpartisan and nonprofit Community Service Society of Greater New York. The rates are even higher in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia.
One symptom is an increased number of homeless children. Nationally, 22% of the homeless in shelters are children, according to a 1984 Department of Housing and Urban Development study. On most nights, New York City provides a dry roof and a warm bed for more than 7,000 homeless children and their families--triple the number of four years ago--in some 50 aging hotels, hundreds of renovated apartments and four crowded shelters.
Long waiting list
"It's very difficult to see it getting better real soon unless there's a real influx of low-income housing," said Steve Thomas, director of New York's shelter program. The city's Housing Authority estimates that 17,000 families are doubled up in public housing, with a waiting list of 164,000 families to get apartments.
At the Roberto Clemente State Park gymnasium near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, for example, dozens of families share a dusty basketball court that has become a bedroom. The city-run shelter, opened in late 1983, has 210 cots and cribs lined in rows. It is filled with harried women and children almost every night.
Although the city provides armed guards, mothers complained about fighting, stealing and constant noise at the shelter.
"I don't know what hell is like, but it certainly looks like hell to me," said Martha Santiago, a 25-year-old unmarried mother who moved to the shelter two months ago when her apartment burned.
'I want to go to school'
As Santiago changed the diaper on her 10-month-old infant and tried to quiet a second wailing baby, her 8-year-old daughter, Teresa, bounced on the bed and chanted: "I want to go to school. I want to go to school. I want to go to school."
Many of the mothers are teen-agers themselves. With more than 1 million adolescents becoming pregnant each year, the United States is the only developed nation where teen-age pregnancy is on the rise.
"A lot of these mothers look to the baby for the love they didn't get," said Verna Eggleston, a director at the Clemente center. "It's sad, but it's real. I've met kids as young as 15 with four kids, births nine months apart. They get counseling, birth control. In one ear, out the other."
One Clemente resident, 15-year-old Emily Torres, had given birth that morning, two weeks earlier than expected. According to her father, Angel Torres, Emily had refused to go to a prenatal clinic. He said the infant would be placed in foster care for safekeeping until the family found a place to live.
"We got to think of the baby now," Torres said.
The reason for such thoughts is clear. In the end, the poor die at a rate three times higher than other children, mostly from accidents, diseases, murders and suicides, according to a recent study of 1,030 child deaths in Maine.
In the end too, society will pay for the survivors with added costs in medical care, crime, family breakup, homelessness and more. And those costs are only part of the problem, according to Dr. Stewart Wolff, director of maternal and child health in Hartford.
"Is it different for a baby born in a cold-water flat?" he asked angrily. "Where the mother is shivering, where the father is gone, where there's not enough food, where there are no toys or books? Of course there's a difference. Children born into poverty learn a message from their birth. The message is we as a society do not value your life. And that's the tragedy."
Seattle woman got new start — then it ended; Case history of a 20-year War on Poverty
July 31, 1985
Williams and the other organizers--most of them poor and over 30--were paid to knock on doors and get persons interested. They were the foot soldiers of Shriver's war.
Doors were slammed in their faces by persons who did not believe that the federal government was paying welfare mothers to walk around and tell people how to apply for benefits, find jobs and fight City Hall. They were accused of being snooping welfare agents.
A turning point
Christmas of 1965 was a turning point, Williams recalls. The block workers spent Christmas Eve in a driving snow delivering gift packs they had scrounged.
"We were good beggars . . . food, clothes, just anything we could put together. That really broke the ice. Word of mouth began to get around, and doors started to open up a little more."
The Central Area Motivation Program grew into the main anti-poverty effort in Seattle. It moved to new quarters in one of the Central District's spacious Victorian houses and became a prominent voice for the black community. Morale was high.
If you were poor in the Central District, you could get a loan from the CAMP credit union. The neighborhood needed sprucing, so people were hired to plant trees and help repair homes. Few had cars and bus service was bad, so drivers were recruited for a fleet of vans and buses. More than 20 neighborhood groups were started to push for better bus routes, new stoplights and fair treatment by landlords. The staff grew to more than 300 persons, most of them formerly poor.
Jobs given to 500
By the end of 1966, a little more than a year after Mary Louise Williams began, more than 9,700 persons had come into contact with CAMP, according to an evaluation study published in 1968 by the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. More than 500 persons had been placed in jobs, another 450 in training programs.
CAMP's community center became home for a whole range of services that did not exist before the war on poverty. Volunteers in the VISTA program--the domestic Peace Corps--helped write grants and run events. Upward Bound and other programs helped ghetto students prepare and enter college. Legal problems were referred to the local Legal Aid office.
About this time, Mary Louise Williams and another block organizer, Gloria Martin, convened the city's first group to work on behalf of welfare mothers. They knew that women felt abused and degraded by the welfare bureaucracy, but it was hard to persuade women that they would not risk losing their benefits if they joined.
Williams remembers that they managed to interest about a dozen mothers by offering an outing at the zoo, complete with free food and baby-sitting. They scrounged for the food, she says, "and my son and a couple of VISTA volunteers took care of the kids while we had our first meeting."
Many moved on
CAMP employees were to stay a year or two, then use their new skills to get better jobs. Many did move on.
Williams remembers being pushed by a particularly stern supervisor to develop her work habits.
"He made us write everything down, and God, I hated him for it," she said. "But he said CAMP was not there for us to sit back and get comfortable. He trained us in politics, he trained us in social work, he trained us in how to go about getting a job. He trained us how to live in the world, really."
Marches and sit-ins established the Central Area Motivation Program as a force to be listened to in City Hall. It took the lead in starting a summer festival to ease racial tension. Black stars such as Bill Cosby and musician James Brown appeared at community events sponsored by CAMP.
"Nobody had a grand plan," said King County Superior Court Judge Charles Johnson, the agency's former chairman. "Everybody knew the poor needed upward mobility, but nobody was sure how to do it. But that's what was good about CAMP, you could experiment."
Poverty rate down
Life changed for the poor in America in those years. The poverty rate never fell as dramatically as Shriver predicted, but the combination of poverty programs and a growing economy driven by Vietnam War spending reduced the rate from 19% in 1964 to 12.8% by 1968.
For those left in poverty, welfare benefits were increased in most states and eligibility extended. Food stamps became widely available. Social Security benefits were raised and expanded.
Before the war on poverty, half of all Americans had no medical insurance. Today nearly all of the elderly have some coverage through Medicare, and most families on welfare receive at least some Medicaid coverage. Low-cost health clinics were started with federal help in many areas.
Before the Johnson program, there was also no general federal aid for local schools. Federal assistance for disadvantaged students was a key part of the war on poverty and helped countless poor students.
Find a future
In Seattle, Mary Louise Williams and others who participated say that hundreds of persons who had no hope for a future found one after they began working at the anti-poverty programs.
Blacks were the poorest, and they benefited the most.
"There were countless individuals who got some kind of start and maintained it," said Harry Thomas, the top non-elected official in Seattle's King County. Thomas, who is black, grew up in a Seattle housing project and became director of an anti-poverty program. "It was the first job for a lot of people. . . . Those kinds of things had a tremendous payoff. To have a job and lose it is not as bad as never having a job."
The first executive director of the Central Area Motivation Program was named to run the Model Cities program when it came to Seattle. He later became the city's chief budget officer and is now superintendent of parks. Another director became the highest-ranking black woman in state government in Washington. Alumni of CAMP and similar programs say they run into fellow graduates in all walks of life.
"We had the education, what we needed was the opportunity," said Harold Whitehead, a former CAMP executive director who was an official of the federal agency overseeing poverty programs for 10 years until it was eliminated by the Reagan Administration.
Original fury wanes
Across the nation, though, the original fury of the war on poverty waned after the first few battles. The escalating Vietnam War ate into the money earmarked for anti-poverty programs. Perhaps more important, the political tone of the anti-poverty programs had alienated big-city mayors and eroded support in Congress.
By the time Nixon was elected President in 1968, Shriver's promise was seldom mentioned. The Nixon Administration distrusted the political role of community action activities and put the brakes on federal spending for social programs.
The Central Area Motivation Program in Seattle underwent a temporary resurgence under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. The act distributed $10 billion in its peak years that allowed nonprofit agencies such as CAMP to hire temporary employees to keep their poverty programs operating.
Nationally, about 400,000 jobs were lost when the Reagan Administration terminated the program.
But the war designed by Johnson and Shriver was long over by the time Ronald Reagan was elected.
Mary Lou Williams thought her job would last until she retired. She had worked hard to put the welfare system behind her forever.
After she left the Central Area Motivation Program in 1968, she got a temporary job with a state program that paid the college expenses of ghetto youth.
The students were supposed to be handicapped, but "every minority I knew was handicapped, so I just gathered them all up and sent them to school. A lot of them graduated. A lot of them who had their BA degrees went on and got their Masters."
She was working for the American Red Cross when she decided that lack of a degree blocked her advancement. Mary Lou enrolled at Seattle University on a scholarship from the federal Model Cities program. With a year left to graduation, she went back out to find a job.
'There was always a fear'
"My arthritis began to bother me quite badly at that time, and I began to get afraid," she said. "The (poverty) programs were running out, and I wasn't working, I was just on scholarships. There was always a fear in the back of my mind that I was going to have to go back on welfare. I said I better get me a job while jobs are still available."
She got a job with the city women's commission. She held her last job with the parks department eight years before being cut loose.
Her layoff came at a bad time. There were more poor than at any time since the war on poverty began.
The national economy was in recession. Washington state's failing timber industry was adding to the state's woes.
State legislators reduced welfare grants 3% in 1980 and another 12% in 1981. A number of state programs for the poor were cut back or eliminated, including dental care for poor adults.
New budget troubles
Welfare payments were restored to their old level in 1983 by a new Democratic majority. But new budget troubles this year, brought on by the state's reliance on unpredictable sales tax collections for most revenue, forced the Legislature to delay a 3% increase in benefits for six months. Plans to improve health coverage for the poor were dropped in a special session called to deal with the state's budget crisis.
Seattle's free food banks, which gather unsalable food from markets and unharvested produce from the fields, report that demand for food has doubled. So many homeless street people clutter downtown sidewalks and wander through Central District neighborhoods that the city is considering a law to punish aggressive beggars. The southeast section of town has become another poor area--and home to most of the city's large Asian refugee population.
When the Rev. Chuck McAlister ran activities for 50 to 60 southeast Seattle youths on Friday nights, he found that many of the children had not eaten for a day or two. "They're neat kids, but you wonder what's going to happen to them," said McAlister, pastor of a Presbyterian church in south Seattle.
Change in approach
At the same time that more people were becoming poor, President Reagan was leading and winning his revolution to change the federal government's approach to the problem.
Rules changes cut 400,000 families off Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the nation's largest welfare program, and reduced the benefits of another 300,000. Food stamp amounts were cut and about a million persons lost their food stamps altogether.
Cuts were needed to help reduce the federal budget deficit, Reagan said. But in return, he called on businesses and charities to step in and contribute more to helping the poor.
In response, businesses in Seattle contributed an extra $2.6 million over two years to the United Way. The money gave the charity its largest increase in several years and allowed United Way to begin financing emergency needs such as food and shelter.
Far short of demand
But Project Transition, as it was called, fell far short of demand. Instead of receiving 15% to 20% more contributions every year as expected, last year United Way's donations increased less than 4%.
"They tried to do what the President wanted, but it was nowhere near what is needed in the community," said Frank Chopp, director of Fremont Public Assn., an anti-poverty group in the city's more affluent North End.
Respondents to the Los Angeles Times poll would not be surprised. About 78% said substantial federal government involvement is needed to reduce poverty. When asked which American institution had the greatest responsibility for the poor, 34% said the federal government. About 21% said the poor themselves, and only 7% said charity. Nearly 60% of the persons surveyed said the government should spend more to reduce poverty.
Fremont Public Assn. is the only Seattle anti-poverty group that has flourished under the Reagan Administration. Its budget has tripled in three years, in part because it has been more successful in competing for federal funds than other agencies.
It provides free food, shelter and advice on welfare matters, puts out a community newspaper and led the forming of a coalition of activists who have become effective lobbyists for the poor.
Under the coalition's prodding, Seattle Mayor Charles Royer approved funds to try to make up some of the federal loss. This year the city put up $1.3 million for "survival services" from its share of general revenue sharing funds. But the amount was minor compared to the need, Royer said, and the funds are in jeopardy because the Reagan Administration would like to eliminate revenue sharing. The city also spends a higher percentage of its other federal funds on social services than most cities, but the Administration is seeking cuts in those funds too.
So when Mary Louise Williams rejoined the poor, her old friends at the Central Area Motivation Program could not help much.
In 1981 the agency had a staff of 48 and saw 20,000 clients a year. Despite rising demand, the staff was cut to 28 and the client load limited to 12,000 persons a year, most of them looking for food and help paying their winter heating bills. More than half of CAMP's $1.1-million budget goes for the heating program and a small job placement service.
Federal funds through the Community Service block grant--the last of the original war on poverty money--have been cut every year since Reagan took office. The agency received $440,000 from the grant in 1981, and only $146,000 this year. The Reagan Administration is attempting to eliminate all funding next year.
"Right now we're really a survival agency," said Larry Gossett, a former student militant who became executive director in 1978 after a financial scandal almost closed the agency.
Every Friday morning, Delores Lindsay walks about a mile to CAMP's headquarters in an old fire station. Her marriage of 25 years recently ended, and she has struck a deal that helps both her and CAMP survive.
She sorts donated clothes into bins and supervises while people picking up a shopping bag of groceries at the weekly food bank also look for a needed pair of jeans or shoes.
She grew up in the Central District but never paid much attention to CAMP. "I didn't figure I needed it," she said. "I was with my husband then."
By volunteering, she is guaranteed a food bag even on days when stocks run out. Her welfare check of $346 a month plus $165 in food stamps is not enough to support her and two sons, she says.
The welfare grant provides Lindsay 62% of her official "need," which is determined by a statewide study of food and other costs.
Standards are austere. Women are allowed four pairs of underwear and two pairs of panty hose a year, and a new raincoat every 10 years. A typical 9-year-old girl gets a pair of oxford shoes a year and new sneakers every two years. She is allowed a bathrobe every three years, a nightgown every two years. The grant assumes no money spent on restaurants, television, entertainment and travel, or tobacco and alcohol.
Tuition, costs paid
Jenny Dorsey is enrolled in one of the few programs still directed at helping persons escape welfare for good. The state Department of Vocational Rehabilitation pays her tuition and costs at the University of Washington rather than require her to apply for low-paying dead-end jobs through the Work Incentive program.
By allowing her to complete her degrees in math and psychology, Dorsey says, she has a chance to escape poverty forever and earn a good living.
But she had to argue with welfare officials who wanted her to leave school and take immediate work as a nursing assistant.
Dorsey lives in a city housing project with her two daughters. As projects go, those in Seattle are not bad. They are called "garden courts" and sport more lawns and open space than the high-rise projects common in many cities.
Still, Dorsey says she is looking forward to the day she is not stung with the stigma of welfare.
Life 'really controlled'
"I think the biggest thing I notice about public assistance is your life is really controlled by these agencies," she said. "When the public assistance office says jump, you have to jump. When Housing says those curtains are four inches too long, you have to take the curtains down."
Mary Louise Williams is better off than most who receive welfare. She collects $492 a month in disability payments and about $20 in food stamps. Rent takes $300 a month. Her house is heated by electricity, and the bills sometimes go over $150 a month in winter. But officially, she is $504 above the official poverty line for the year.
When she went to apply for medical help at the welfare office, she found the welfare system even more degrading than it was 20 years ago.
"You got to be almost dead to get on these programs now," she said. "It's a book that you have to fill out to get any kind of welfare help. You can go for months just trying to get the correct papers up there.
Poor 'play the game'
"It's a steady game that the Administration plays against the poor, and the poor learns, and they play the game back. If you can play the game, you can live. It's a shame that people can't be honest and live like decent people."
Three of her children are making it alone. One daughter is on welfare.
If the war on poverty had not come to town, she said, she would have remained on welfare. Blacks in the Central District would have remained separated from the rest of the city.
"It was never, never meant to be as much of a success as it was. Instead, some of us learned. Some of us actually took advantage of the poverty program by getting an education."
But those days are over. Now, Mary Lou wonders about the future.
"The reason the doors were opened was because there was money for the doors to be opened. The doors have all been closed because the money is gone."
For every solution, a drawback; No tactic yet found to win poverty war
Aug. 1, 1985
Soapy was a bum.
He didn't like to bathe. His home was a bench in the park. When leaves began to fall and his quilt of Sunday newspapers no longer sufficed, he decided to get arrested so a judge would pack him off to spend the cold brutality of the winter, as a guest of the taxpayers, in the congenial warmth of the poorhouse.
But, in O. Henry's classic story, even at this pitiful scheme Soapy failed. Six times he tempted the comforting arm of the law. He tried to eat a meal and stiff the check. He tried to act drunk and be disorderly. He tried to steal an umbrella. And each time he bungled it. He seemed doomed, no matter what, to liberty.
Then, in a magic moment, as he heard the Sabbath anthem echoing from a fine, gabled church, he realized the error of his ways. It reminded him of days when his life was rich with such things as "mothers and roses and ambitions." He resolved to reform--and, at that very instant, of course, a policeman pinched him for loitering. The judge dispatched Soapy, and his dashed conversion, away to the poorhouse.
O. Henry wrote that story 75 years ago, but things are even more paradoxical for the poor today. At a time when one in seven Americans is poor--and the poverty rate is at a 20-year high--the government is doing less to help them. More research about poverty accumulates each year, but public policy often is shaped on the basis of myths about the poor and misconceptions about what the public wants to do for them.
An intensive study by The Times, of which this is the fifth and final part, shows:
--Although President Reagan has whittled back aid to the poor, the newest evidence is that the public would prefer he do much more--not less--to ease the burden of the needy. According to a Times poll, 73% of the public favor government action on behalf of the poor and 57% would even be willing to approve a 1% federal sales tax to pay for it. About 55% say that Reagan cares most about the rich; only 2% say he cares most about the poor.
--If Americans sometimes picture the poor as derelicts like Soapy the bum, a more accurate image is far more pathetic. Nearly 40% of the nation's 35.3 million poor people are children. The world's wealthiest nation now has a growing number of children at risk of death and disease, hunger and cold, poor schooling and housing, abuse and neglect. The ultimate cost will come in higher medical bills, rising crime and other social ills.
Poverty programs worked
--Although social programs are frequently maligned, the anti-poverty efforts that began with the New Deal and accelerated dramatically during the 1960s and 1970s largely have been successful. America's poverty rate was cut by half between 1960 and 1973, and it has only started rising sharply again since 1979. Social programs do not work miracles but they do work. They have provided protection against hard times--cash, food, housing, medical care, job training--a safety net that is still in place, if fraying.
--Despite the fact that most who suffer poverty stay poor only a short time, an underclass of welfare-dependent women, street hustlers, small-time criminals and the homeless festers in almost every large city. A group hard to define, let alone count, the underclass has been neglected by researchers and policy makers alike. The nation appears to have written off part of its urban centers as territory gone bad.
--Although the nation has fallen into one of its periodic fits of suspicion about whether the poor are lazy--and even wonders if public aid lures them away from jobs--their work ethic actually is quite strong. Poverty far more often is the result of things beyond individual control: the jittery economy, low wages, ill health or simple bad luck.
"What characterizes the '80s is just the reverse of the '60s," according to Sheldon Danziger, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin. "In the '60s, we thought we could do anything and we were willing to pay for it. Today, we've swung in the other direction and we're too critical. The tendency is to think nothing works."
There are five basic approaches to helping the poor--give them cash; provide them food coupons, subsidies and medical services; create jobs; offer them job training; wait for the rising tide of the economy to lift them from distress.
They all work, but they work imperfectly. Drawbacks come with every solution, and it is difficult to fuse the best combination at an acceptable price.
--Cash is the easiest. Social Security payments, now indexed to inflation, are credited with cutting the poverty rate among the elderly by more than half since 1967. But giving money to people sometimes makes them less eager to work. Although this is not a problem among the elderly--who no longer are expected to hold jobs--it is a proper concern about the recipients of welfare, the other major cash program.
--Food stamps, Medicaid, housing grants and similar programs are known as "in-kind" benefits. They allow the government to better control how public aid will be spent. But the in-kind programs tend to require their own bureaucracies, which raise administrative costs. Besides, they, too, can make recipients less inclined to work.
--Jobs for the able-bodied poor clearly are preferable to welfare. But creating public service jobs--whether they are cleaning parks, collecting garbage or building bridges--is very difficult without taking away private sector jobs. If the jobs are indeed truly additional positions, then there is the expense of the wages. And, if the wages are low, they tend to bring down the salaries of others who work at similar jobs.
--Job training, especially for those skills most needed in the workplace, is a good investment that allows some of the poor to eventually make their own way. But it is very expensive and the failure rate is high. It, too, ultimately depends on job creation. If the workplace is without extra jobs for the newly trained, they will simply compete for jobs already filled, bumping others into unemployment.
--The "rising tide that lifts all boats," the catch phrase for economic boom so popular with Presidents John F. Kennedy and Reagan, actually best lifts all yachts. The wealthy better withstand bad times and profit more from the good. Although a strong economy clearly helps some of the poor get jobs, prosperity often ignores the unskilled, the disabled and single mothers home with their small children.
No 'silver bullet'
"We've tried a lot of things and nothing is the silver bullet," says Robert Reischauer, executive vice president of the Urban Institute, a research organization specializing in social problems and government policy. "But poverty is a very difficult problem. We, as a society, shouldn't expect impossible results."
In the last 20 years, the safety net has been woven during both Democratic and Republican administrations. However complicated its pattern and frayed its edges, there is a logic to the weave. In it, necessity and responsibility and compassion are intertwined, and its resilience is a great part of what surely defines Americans as a people.
The problem of poverty is confounding, and much remains to be learned. The anti-poverty effort has had its successes and failures, the former often forgotten because the latter have been so discouraging.
Some current anti-poverty measures, however, enjoy the support of many liberals and conservatives alike.
--The poor have been taxed deeper into poverty, and there is bipartisan agreement that their burden should be lightened. One way to do this would be to increase the personal income tax exemption. Another would be to raise the earned income tax credit, a special tax break for low-income workers with children. The President already has recommended these changes.
'Workfare' being tried
--Experiments with "workfare"--requiring welfare recipients to intensively search for jobs, and sometimes do community work, in return for their benefit checks--are going on in nearly half the states, including California. Where these programs genuinely offer job opportunities and are in no way a punishment for being poor, many liberals and conservatives seem to agree the efforts should continue.
--There is a wide consensus that tougher child support laws need to be enacted, making sure that paternity is established for each child. Fathers would then be made to pay adequate support based on their incomes, removing much of that public burden. New legislation in Wisconsin may serve as a model for the nation.
--Thousands of mothers are prevented from working only because they lack reasonably priced child care. More subsidized quality day care would make entry-level jobs a reasonable alternative to a welfare check.
--America is the only developed nation where teen-age pregnancy is on the rise. One million adolescents become pregnant each year, opening a trap door that will drop many of them into a lifetime of poverty. Many analysts now believe that there is a critical need for a coordinated federal effort to caution teen-agers against pregnancy, as well as to assist young mothers with education and job training.
Varying welfare payments
Other measures under consideration are more controversial--as well as costly:
--Welfare benefits vary from state to state depending on a complex formula, which involves federal matching of state payments. This causes the maximum welfare benefit for a family of four to vary from $775 in Alaska to $120 in Mississippi. Many favor a minimum federal contribution, regardless of each state's payment, that would improve the living standards of millions of welfare recipients, most of them children.
--Benefits have been declining sharply against the costs of living. After adjustment for inflation, the median state benefit for a family of four has fallen by nearly 40% since 1970. Thus, some have proposed pegging benefits to a percentage of the poverty line, which is adjusted for inflation, to help recipients keep pace with rising prices.
--Half the states permit welfare payments to two-parent households, so that a jobless father does not disqualify his wife and children from benefits. According to the Congressional Budget Office, if this were extended to the entire nation, the cost would be an estimated $800 million in 1986.
No single solution
These changes, of course, would only alter the texture of the fabric. No single measure will erase poverty--or even swiftly cut it to size. Dramatic improvements will result only from a combination of a strong economy, low unemployment and carefully planned and generous anti-poverty programs.
An important part of the policy debate, too, is to understand that the problem of poverty did not arrive yesterday and it will not be gone tomorrow. Poverty is not specific to this country--or this generation or even this century. That despair rises from disparity is a theme as old as history, and that the duty of the strong is to help the weak is an obligation as rooted as morality itself. Hammurabi, ruler of Babylonia almost two thousand years before Christ, listed the protection of widows and orphans as an essential part of his famous legal code. Ancient Hebrew doctrine made it a duty of the virtuous to give and a right of the needy to receive. Christians believe that Jesus, by his earthly example, sanctified poverty. To help the poor was proof of devotion to God and necessary to eternal salvation.
But, if the poor have been exalted in religious teachings, they have been eyed with suspicion in everyday life: The feeble and lame and orphaned may have seemed worthy of a village's spare bread, but mixed among them were loafers and drifters--and they did not.
No charity for the impious
In 4th-Century North Africa, St. Augustine suggested that charity be withheld from the impious. In 14th-Century Europe, work was sometimes forced on the jobless. In 1587, Pope Sixtus V banned begging in Rome.
This great suspicion--and sometimes contempt--for the needy eventually led to England's milestone Poor Law of 1601. Although it recognized the poor's legal right to public help, it declared that vagrants--or anyone else healthy enough to work--had to earn their own way or risk prison, whippings or death.
This same ambivalence was carried over to the American colonies.
Calvinism was the ethic of 17th-Century New England, and its followers believed that a man's lot was predetermined by God: The wealthy owed their riches to divine grace and the poor were condemned because of their own sins and sloth.
"For those who indulge themselves in idleness, the express command of God unto us is, that we should let them starve," Puritan leader Cotton Mather said.
About 200 years later, far less devout "social Darwinists" advanced a similarly harsh conclusion: Society is a jungle and it correctly rewards the fittest and punishes the feeble.
Confined to poorhouses
Nevertheless, America grew up as a place where the poor were rarely ignored. This sometimes meant that they were shepherded into county poorhouses, where the able-bodied were compelled to work and children were made to study. In theory, this not only sheltered them from their surroundings but cleansed them of an impoverished spirit within.
Instead of well-ordered refuges, however, the poorhouses were usually awful places, home to both the young and old, the sane and insane, the decrepit and the drunk. Although born in reform in the 1800s, they themselves became objects of shame.
Not all the poor suffered the poorhouse, of course. The needy numbered far too many for that. Many survived by begging or living off the land.
In the 1870s, a depression left millions jobless. The nation feared riots. Private charities started bread lines and soup kitchens, dispensing coal, clothes and even cash.
But charity workers came to suspect that a number of those accepting help could have survived on their own. Charity, they supposed, actually wooed people into poverty.
"In its most extreme forms, this led to the reasoning that . . . giving shoes to poor children so that they could go to school encouraged parents to keep their children out of school in order to get them free shoes," Columbia University historian John A. Garraty wrote.
'Visitors' inspected poor
The charity workers insisted that relief must be linked to moral counseling. This was done nationwide by an army of "friendly visitors" who inspected the poor in their homes, noting their inner failings and urging more appropriate behavior. The movement was called "scientific charity."
In time, however, the pendulum swung back. Charity workers eventually realized that poverty was a problem complicated by far more than misguided morals. No amount of "friendly visits" would remedy woes rooted in joblessness or low wages.
By the early 1900s, the storied "other half" was indeed almost that. Using the standards of those times--far lower than those now--about 40% of the nation was poor, according to historian James T. Patterson of Brown University. Blacks were so poor and isolated that they were "virtually invisible to reformers."
Still, poverty remained largely a state and local concern. The federal government did not get involved until the Clutch Plague, when millions of middle-class Americans discovered that poverty--and not a chicken in every pot--was just around the corner.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's recovery strategy employed millions in public works. It marked an important precedent, and not all welcomed the change. To many Americans, WPA (the initials of the Works Progress Administration, one of those public works programs) stood for the lazy man's motto--"We Piddle Around."
Yet, the country emerged from the Depression with an unforgettable lesson: Whims of the economy, more than any human weakness, could cause poverty; and a great people must guarantee aid as a right.
In 1935, Congress approved the Social Security Act, aimed at preventing destitution among the elderly, the crippled and the blind. In addition, it provided for widowed mothers with children, a program that later became Aid for Families with Dependent Children, more commonly called welfare.
In the years after World War II, the nation thrived. Few American leaders noticed that the "other half" had merely shrunk into the "other quarter." Ghetto tenements and country shacks teemed with the poor from sea to shining sea.
When poverty was finally rediscovered, Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson spoke not of the poor's laziness but of the non-poor's neglect of its responsibilities. Washington would become the poor man's main pipeline to help.
To Social Security and welfare were added a variety of social programs. And, by the beginning of this decade, 10 million people received welfare, 20 million got food stamps. Federal spending for social programs--largely Social Security and Medicare--was $313 billion.
Social programs cut
Then the pendulum again reversed its arc. The Reagan years have brought budget cuts to social programs and a turn in attitude as well.
"In the past two decades, we've created hundreds of new programs to provide personal assistance," the President said in a 1981 address to the nation. "Many of these programs may have come from a good heart, but not all have come from a clear head."
Some of the vexing conflicts about the poor have returned.
Like the friendly visitors of 100 years ago, social analyst Charles Murray and others in the vanguard of the current critique suggest that inner weaknesses plague the poor more than business cycles and that public relief only encourages laziness.
In his controversial book, "Losing Ground," Murray proposes "scrapping the entire federal welfare system and income-support structure for working-age persons . . . . It is the Alexandrian solution: cut the knot, for there is no way to untie it."
But the eraser is no easier to use than the pencil. In an interview, Murray admitted that wiping away the system is not feasible. His suggestions, actually, were new programs, one for job training and another for public service jobs, an agency to employ anyone willing to work at less than the minimum wage.
'These idiotic ideas'
Similar programs, of course, have been tried for years, and Murray, chagrined, knew it: "Ten years down the road, they're going to say . . . Murray got caught up in the necessity of coming up with practical solutions, and so he came up with these idiotic ideas, and what happened is that it was CETA all over again."
CETA, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, was a job-training program, discredited by critics such as Murray and discontinued by the federal government. It went the way of the county poorhouse and "scientific charity" and a thousand other well-intentioned attempts that did not work well enough.
Only poverty goes on--nettlesome, perplexing and, most of all, enduring.
Almost 2,500 years ago, the Greek historian Thucydides wrote that poverty was "no disgrace to acknowledge but a real degradation to make no effort to overcome."
Now, as then, the challenge is to be benevolent in a time of limitations, to be equitable in a world of inequality, to be persistent in the face of a problem that seems never-ending.
It is an age-old matter of the pocket and the heart.
Credits: Produced Lily Mihalik and Andrea Roberson.