Beaufort County, S.C. — On a quiet pond miles from the resorts of Hilton Head island, which is the best-known part of this coastal county, Annie Mae Cooper gets a bite. She pulls the end of her long bamboo pole skyward, lifting a crab out of the pond. Then she takes out the hook, plops the crab into her plastic bucket on top of a few small fish, and walks along the muddy bank toward some visitors. Broom straw and sea oats nearby bend gently in the wind.
Though of retirement age, she doesn't fish just for the sport. With a monthly income of only about $345 (Supplemental Security Income [SSI] plus $22 in food stamps), her home-grown vegetables and any fish she catches help stretch her food supply. In her spare time, Mrs. Cooper does church work or helps a neighbor with chores like washing clothes.
This widowed mother of nine children, now all grown, is upbeat about life.
``If you trust in God, God will provide,'' she says, resuming her fishing. ``I got my head up out of the water. I'm not starving. I'm not destitute.''
Then she adds: ``But life could have been better.''
For many residents of Beaufort County, life has not been easy. But it is better today than in the late 1960s when verified cases of severe malnutrition here shocked the nation. Soon after that, the federal food-stamp program was greatly expanded. It has alleviated much of the hunger in America, according to follow-up reports. But a recent Harvard University study contends that many poor families across the nation run out of the stamps before the end of the month. As many as 20 million people may go hungry part of the month, the report contends.
Now, as Congress and the President wrestle over what cuts to make in domestic programs, some of them directly affecting the poor, the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line (15.2) is higher it has been in any year since 1966. (Poverty is defined as income of less than $10,178 for a family of four in 1983, latest year for which data are available.)
In a recent report, the United States Census Bureau stated that poverty data for the '60s and the '80s can't be compared because the poor today have available more aid, such as food stamps and medicaid.
But aid such as food stamps does not, by itself, pull a person out of the grip of poverty. Neither do other forms of federal assistance, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
What progress is being made in breaking the cycle of poverty -- not just maintaining a person with various kinds of welfare, but actually moving them out of poverty? As a starting point at looking at this question in four Southern states, Beaufort County has some special characteristics. But the main issues of poverty here are little different from trhose in many other parts of the US.
``We still have barely scratched the surface'' in tackling poverty, says Frederick J. Drake, a retired Marine Corps sergeant who runs the environmental health programs for Comprehensive Health Services Inc. of Beaufort and Jasper Counties. The clinic was opened in response to the expos'e of malnutrition and related issues in the late 1960s.
``There has been an improvement. But there's still a lot of blight,'' he says. Some people are still struggling ``just to survive,'' he adds. Many homes are far from adequate, he says, still lacking such features as indoor plumbing or good land drainage.
As for malnutrition: ``There's still some of that out there,'' Mr. Drake says.
Community leaders interviewed here agree with Drake that progress has been made. But they differ over how much. A boom in resorts and retirement homes in the area has provided a job boom in construction, hotels, and domestic work. But many of the jobs are seasonal, and often involve the added expense of transportation and child care.
Still, there is an eagerness among the poor to work, even for low wages.
``I don't get nothin' from the government,'' says Neather Witter, who owns a trailer next to the house that her father, former construction worker Ernest Poacher, built for himself and his wife, Janie. ``I always try to have a job,'' she says.
Yet after working seven years as a cook at a restaurant, she still earns barely above minimum wage. She brings home $138 a week, and pays a monthly mortgage on her trailer of $133. ``Sometimes I can just survive,'' she says. Her two children are grown, but she still cannot afford to buy a car.
As in other popular retirement areas across the nation, the population growth of Beaufort County has caused a land rush. The poor who own land are increasingly selling it off to developers who build hotels or condominiums that sell for up to $500,000 or more. For the poor, it is a lifetime chance to make a lot of money. But without proper investment of the sale proceeds, the money can slip away, say some black leaders here.
Emory Campbell, who runs the Penn Center, a local community agency aimed at helping the poor, would prefer to see blacks negotiate long-term leases with developers, retaining ownership of the land and a steady income. Also needed are more adult literacy programs, more job training and placement efforts, and enrichment programs for schoolchildren to help stimulate their desire to learn, such as visits to museums and more tutoring help, says Campbell.
But there are still many poor neighborhoods not yet touched by the land rush. Kendley and Rosa Williams, married 43 years, live in one such neighborhood. Their family income is about $530 from SSI and about $30 a month in food stamps. Although there is little material wealth, a visitor to their small home, which they built themselves, quickly realizes they have a great deal of love.
Christmas and greeting cards decorate one wall of their living room, also serving as a layer of insulation, a community worker notes. A large tapestry of the Last Supper covers another wall. Several throw rugs are on the linoleum floor.
Mr. Williams, partly paralyzed since a teen-ager and totally blind since two years ago, feels his way in from the kitchen to his chair in the living room. Asked about poverty, he smiles and answers in a booming voice: ``This is one of the poorest homes in the community.'' But, he says: ``I'm thankful for what I got. And I ask God to lead, guide, and correct me.''
His wife comes in from the kitchen where she has been baking a cake. ``I've been in poverty all my days,'' she says. ``I just thanks the Lord to be alive. I wouldn't know what to do with a lot of money.'' They hold hands as a photographer takes their picture.
In order to get a regular supply of water and indoor plumbing, Williams convinced his dozen or so neighbor familes to contribute $20 each to have a deep well dug a decade ago. The pump and pipelines, as well as some renovations to his house, were paid for by the Beaufort-Jasper clinic.
The clinic was once headed by Thomas Barnwell, who helped bring national attention to the issue of malnutrition here. About two- thirds of the clinic's work, including community improvement projects, is funded through federal programs. The federal money has been steadily cut back during the last several years. Chart Percent of people in US living below the poverty line
Not counting assistance Counting cash value of assistance* 1979 1.7 10.0 1980 13.0 11.4 1981 14.0 12.6 1982 15.0 13.7 1983 15.2 14.0 *Food stamps, housing subsidies, welfare, and other government aid
In a table on Page 3 of Monday's editions, a number was inadvertently dropped. The proportion of people living below the poverty level in 1979, when public assistance is not counted, should have been 11.7 percent. ----30--