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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

The so-called corporate welfare (various tax breaks for industry) should be abolished first, -- then personal welfare should go, he says.

``A young, healthy person should not blame the system for being poor,'' he insists. On this point, ``I grow increasingly radical.''

Murray's analysis, however, is strongly disputed by other experts. They say federal help has boosted many poor out of poverty and helped others avoid more serious suffering. Changes in the economy, not the welfare system, are the major force behind who works and who does not, they counter.

Sar Levitan, an author and professor of economics, favors a major federal role in fighting poverty, and views Murray's ideas as just plain ``wrong.''

Mr. Levitan is director of the Center for Social Policy Studies at George Washington University and is working on a book, ``Programs in Aid of the Poor,'' to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in June.

According to Levitan, food stamps and federally subsidized school lunches have made better diets possible; the Women, Infants, and Children program (WIC) has helped save lives and improve health; Head Start (a preschool program) has improved educational performance; and federal grants have helped many poor go to college.

On the whole, says Levitan, ``the welfare system has worked. It's alleviated a great deal if not all of the deprivation in the US.''

Federal payment programs such as social security, supplemental security income (SSI) for the elderly and disabled, and other federal programs have already reduced poverty substantially among the elderly, according to the Institute for Research on Poverty, at the University of Wisconsin. Reforms that might lessen poverty

In an article responding to Murray's book prepared for a coming issue of Challenge Magazine, Institute for Research on Poverty director Sheldon Danziger and Peter Gottschalk write that Murray's analysis ``does not fit the facts.''

The two men agree that poverty rose in the '70s. But it was not the disincentive of welfare that pushed it up, they say. Rising unemployment was the key. Without the poverty programs, the poverty rate would have gone up even higher, they contend.

The two propose a three-step reform, however, to reduce poverty further through:

Greater use of ``workfare'' that requires work by welfare recipients and guarantees jobs will be available. This will call for some public jobs for welfare recipients, they say.

Special help, such as skills training, for the ``small minority'' that remain on welfare for long periods.

Expansion of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit to childless families and singles. The program currently provides some financial support only for low-income, working families with children. Chart: Federal Poverty Assitance

Fiscal

Year Total % of federal budget

'65 $15 (billion) 4.4

66 16 4.3

67 17 3.9

68 20 4.2

69 22 4.7

70 24 5.1

71 31 6.3

72 37 7.2

73 36 6.8

74 40 7.5

75 46 7.6

76 50 7.9

77 51 7.6

78 50 7.3

79 51 7.3

80 54 7.3

81 58 7.5

82 57 7.1

83 59 7.1

84 59 6.9

est85 61 6.6

est90 60 6.3 * Total federal spending including: Medicaid, housing subsidies, food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Supplemental Security Income, special veterans benefits (projections based on White House estimates). Source: Congressional Research Service (part of the Library of Congress) Constant 1984 dollars adjusted for inflation

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