Enough Americans to populate five El Salvadors remain below the poverty line in their own country. Whose responsibility is it to help those among these 25 million who have made every effort to lift themselves and still for various reasons fall below the line?
In less than two months a prime symbol of federal responsibility, the Community Services Administration, is scheduled to be dismantled. This diminishing of the federal antipoverty role is part of a trend that challenges states, localities, and individuals to renew their own responsibilities. The shift could give fresh practical meaning to the Old Testament recognition that sharing is not a zero-sum game: "He that giveth unto the poor shall not lack. . . ."
For the progress of each American is progress for all Americans. If President Reagan's overall economic program works as intended, the numbers in poverty should be reduced on the sound basis of more needed, productive, and remunerative employment. In the meantime, the effort to aid the poor has to make a virtue out of the changed circumstances.
It is the Community Services Administration that stepped in to help low-income families offset sudden rises in winter fuel bills, for example. It was the originator of the Head Start program, but it has been little known except to those receiving its benefits in local projects such as meals for the elderly, education for school dropouts, employment counseling, and home weatherization. It grew up after President Nixon moved to dismantle its predecessor antipoverty agency, the Office of Economic Opportunity.
Now the intention is to channel the agency's millions of dollars in antipoverty funds directly to the states for decisions on how to use them. The question is whether states will overcome the doubts of antipoverty workers about state sensitivity to antipoverty needs. A recent study by the National Urban League found that the poor are helped more by federal programs earmarking funds for specific purposes than by the general block grants favored by Mr. reagan, with allocation left up to the states. There is always a chance for slippage when the jurisdiction deciding on how to spend the money does not also have the responsibility for raising it.
But there is no reason that states cannot rise to the occasion and use their on-the-spot knowledge to do as well as or better than the federal government in matching antipoverty funds to antipoverty needs.Also, some of the local antipoverty people are seeing if private sources cannot be tapped to maintain useful programs.The record of volunteers is impressive, but more could join the ranks. The new spirit in the land could be proved to be one not of less care for the unfortunate but of more effective, more widespread caring for them.
The Urban League study showed that people are not doomed to remain in poverty.Of black Americans who had been poor at any time during the period of 1967-75, only a tenth were poor for the whole period. Those more than 25 million Americans identified as below the poverty line by the Census Bureau in 1979 are not the same millions as today.
Americans can get out of poverty -- and help others in turn. This has always been part of their story. It is up to them to begin a grand new chapter ins tead of closing the book.