Is Uncle Sam too generous with social programs?

For two decades the federal government has steadily built a system of services and income transfers that touch the daily lives of millions of Americans.

Some 22 million recipients are buying their groceries with food stamps this month. Thousands of steel and auto workers, laid off from antiquated factories that can no longer compete in the world market, have relied on "extended" unemployment checks.

As oil prices went sky high, Americans who qualify as needy have paid their heating bills with help from Uncle Sam's fuel assistance program.

Now President Reagan's program for economic recovery says Uncle Sam has been too generous, that such social services are "serious challenges to basic social values of independence and self-support." And they are inflationary, says the President's thick book, which outlines cuts of $41.4 billion for the 1982 budget.

Social service programs, most of them begun and expanded by Democrats, are the prime target of the Republican budget ax.

Ten such programs, ranging from food stamps to housing assistance and social security disability payments, cost the government only $5.6 billion in 1970. Today the price tag is $56.9 billion, up 10 times. "I don't believe the need has increased tenfold," said a top budget official.

Here's how the Reagan team wants to turn the tables on the expanding services:

* Drop 400,000 households from the rolls of food stamp recipients by changing the eligibility standard. A family of four would have to earn less than $11,000 a year to keep full benefits.

* Put a cap on health care subsidies to low-income persons in the Medicaid program. Currently the federal government pays half of these costs, the states half, with no federal limits on the spending. President Reagan's plan would limit the federal share in 1982 to 5 percent more than the 1981 total.

* Shrink some unemployment benefits. Under current law, if unemployment climbs abnormally high, jobless workers throughout the country have their unemployment benefits stretched out, with grants from the federal government. The Reagan plan would eliminate the national "trigger" for the program. EXtended benefits would be granted only for states with exceptionally high rates of unemployment.

* Drastically cut back federal job training set up by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) and refocus it on private-sector employment. CETA provides money to pay for local and state government positions that have been labeled "make work" jobs by the administration.

These programs and others, including coal miners' benefits, school lunch subsidies, and housing aid for low-income families, would be cut. But the Reagan plan also would overturn the entire operation of these programs.

It would turn over vast sums of money for social programs to the states in the form of "super" block grants. These grants would have few of the federal strings and mandates that now govern aid to states. States would be able to operate their programs more efficiently without federal meddling, according to the Reagan plan, and "overhead will be drastically reduced."

Social welfare advocates, civil rights groups, and labor unions are not sitting back quietly while President Reagan dismantles the federal social programs. Already the AFL-CIO has issued its denunciation and is organizing a coalition to fight back.

"Why do you think the federal government got involved in the first place?" asks Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund. It was, she says, because many states failed to deliver services to the po or, the handicapped, and the homeless.

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