Useful or not, antipoverty programs are still being trimmed

From a one-time flour mill in this hilly city at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains, the War on Poverty begun under President Lyndon Johnson is still being fought. Ammunition to operate community-action programs -- federal funding -- is running low and could run out this year. Still, individual battles with poverty here continue to be won through jobs and education services.

The mill is the headquarters for Total Action Against Poverty or TAP, one of about 900 community-action programs across the nation. Community-action programs, Job Corps, Head Start and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) were all begun as part of the war on poverty.

But like a fight waged in the dark, it has become increasingly difficult to judge whether or not federal antipoverty programs are or were effective.

Do those helped actually break out of poverty? There is little evidence that very many do. And federal funds were never provided for a thorough follow-up, says Ted Edlich, executive director of TAP since 1975. There has been no federal or private evaluation to determine the effects of the program either.

``Community-action programs have failed miserably'' for lack of funding and staff to follow up on those who have been helped by the programs, says Wilma Warren, a longtime TAP employee.

So community action of this type is threatened with a halt at a time when no one really knows what effect it is having. President Reagan has supported cutting these programs in an effort to reduce federal spending. Congress has balked before at his requests to end the programs and may balk again this year.

Last year, under Roanoke's TAP-administered programs, about 50 jobless were trained and hired in nongovernment jobs; nearly 500 children from low-income families got an early jump on reading and other skills for preschoolers through Head Start, a federal program TAP administers. Forty-five high school dropouts completed special courses to earn the equivalent of a high school degree. Hundreds of other adults and youths received some kind of educational or motivational assistance, including about 400 former prisoners and about 1,000 alcohol abusers.

Interviews here with some individuals helped by TAP indicate their lives have improved because of TAP.

There is almost a religious-type zeal among many of the top TAP personnel, a number of whom have been with the program for more than a decade.

``I saw it [TAP] as something consistent with the principles of the Gospel,'' says Mr. Edlich, a bearded, former Presbyterian minister.

Edlich, who enjoys a good game of chess and likes to don a cowboy hat when he makes his rounds to program sites, says it is a misconception to think of the poor as somehow ``different'' from other people. If they decide to try to help themselves -- are encouraged to do so -- then given an opportunity for self-improvement, they can move ahead, he says.

Ray Liles was released from prison in 1981 after serving a sentence for a felony. Now he works for TAP helping to weatherize low-income family homes.

``This is a stepping stone for me,'' he says. He said he also completed his high school studies through another TAP-run program.

Brenda Stanley is enrolled in a TAP adult education program, finishing high school so she can go on to college.

Divorced, and raising a 14-year-old son, she explained, just outside her classroom here: ``I'm tired of my life the way it is. This is the first time in my life I've reached out for something for myself.''

Last year 70 persons earned their high school equivalency through TAP programs. Nearly 200 high school students were given special tutoring and counseling in another TAP program.

Since 1978, however, TAP has had its federal administrative funding cut by approximately 50 percent to about $672,000 today. TAP uses these funds to administer more than $5 million worth of federal and local government programs. The staff has shrunk from about 400 to about 215 today.

Reagan administration officials contend local government will pick up the tab if the federal funding is cut. But despite stacks of letters from state and local officials praising TAP, there have been no firm commitments.

Local government officials are ``irritated'' at the prospect of having the federal government ``dump'' community-action programs on them, Edlich says.

In most places across the country, state and local elected officials are not anxious to raise taxes, says Edward Block, who heads an organization of community-action program directors. Without federal funding the community-action agencies, the programs they administer locally could be forced to close, he says. That is because some of the programs threatened if TAP goes under are actually funded by other federal money but administered by TAP.

``We may not get the money [to continue,] says E. Cabell Brand, president of TAP and head of Stuart McGuire, a mail-order company in neighboring Salem, Va. ``It may die,'' he said in an interview.

But the principle of helping people help themselves (rather than simply giving them a handout), has been learned and will not disappear, he says.

TAP now is seeking private donations to fill out a $10 million endowment fund.

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