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First step toward freedom is `deciding' to break out of poverty. Monitor reporter sums up his observations on plight of poor

By Robert M. PressStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 5, 1985


Jobs -- private or public -- are the poverty solution most often talked about by analysts and the poor themselves during interviews for this series. Some would tie stronger work requirements to the receipt of welfare, but guarantee work of some kind to be available.

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Others suggest gradually eliminating all welfare and other support programs for the working-age poor except unemployment compensation. Poverty not a hopeless situation

Those interviewed do not shrug and say nothing will work. Rather, there generally seems to be a healthy and lively debate over just what steps are most effective.

Here are some observations from interviews in South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, and Virginia with the poor, the previously poor, and those helping to fight poverty.

Poverty is still a daily way of life for many Americans. The census bureau estimates that 35 million Americans live below the poverty line. From the small Alabama farmer with a few acres of horse-plowed land to the elderly South Carolina couple who received indoor plumbing only in 1973, making do is a constant challenge.

Even with an improving economy, poverty rates remain high.

The poor are not facing their struggles without hope or faith that things will get better. ``I'm hoping things will be better in my life,'' says Annie Mae Cooper, a churchgoing elderly black woman in Beaufort County, S.C. And there is pride: pride that leads some to work for low wages and not accept welfare; pride also that prevents some rural Alabama families living in shacks from accepting an offer of free hogs or cattle to improve their income.

There are ways to close the gap between the jobless seeking jobs and employers seeking employees. Federal job training for the poor is beginning to show some results. More than half to two-thirds of such trainees are being hired. But no one knows how long people keep the jobs beyond one day or if they would have found jobs on their own. Federal job-training law requires no follow-up research to find out.

Those not ready for job training are not getting the remedial education and job preparation they need. The federal job-training data show lack of effort in this area.

Regardless of how ready someone is to move ahead, the starting point is the individual's decision to do something about being poor, say Ted Edlich, a former minister who runs an anti-poverty program in Roanoke, Va. ``The majority [of the poor] have a burning desire to do well.''

Those aided by Mr. Edlich's program said staff members there encouraged them to keep up the fight when they were discouraged. ``They gave me a chance,'' says Jeane Paige, once helped by the Roanoke program and now employed by it. Expert views at opposite poles

Drastically different views of what the federal role should be in combating poverty exist among experts on the subject.

Author Charles Murray, in his controversial book, ``Losing Ground,'' suggests gradually eliminating all welfare and other support programs for the working-age poor except unemployment compensation. No more food stamps, medicaid, subsidized housing, or aid to families with dependent children. Such programs are discouraging people from working he says.

If he were to revise his book, Mr. Murray said in a telephone interview with the Monitor, he would put in capital letters the sentence in his final chapter that reads: ``Reforms should be undertaken carefully and slowly, and often not at all.''

He said of his suggested reform: ``I don't consider it practical whatsover.'' But, it ``would be good ideally,'' he said.