Welfare Reform Threatens To Bring a Scrooge Effect

Poor and elderly could go hungry, warn religious and charity groups

PORTRAYING Republicans as descendants of Scrooge, the Dickensian tightwad who disdained Christmas, advocates for the poor and elderly are fighting to save federal food and shelter programs from the GOP budget ax.

But these groups worry they are waging a losing battle because President Clinton and many Democrats, the traditional patrons of welfare programs, are now embracing spending cuts as they try to recoup from the GOP's November election landslide.

``I don't think the public outcry is going to be quick enough to stop some really bad things from happening in Congress in the first two or three months,'' says the Rev. David Beckman, head of Bread for the World, a coalition of 3,500 churches based in Silver Spring, Md.

Despite the gloomy prospects, advocacy groups this week vowed to pursue efforts at the national and local levels to derail the GOP's proposed welfare-reform plans as they move through the new Congress.

Charities, religious groups, and big-city mayors charge that the welfare reductions mandated by the incoming GOP congressional majority's ``Contract With America'' agenda will push millions more Americans into hunger and homelessness.

``The Dickens-like specter of hungry Americans, of malnourished children and frail elderly persons whose lives are shortened by a lack of nutritious food, is morally repugnant,'' says Christine Vladimiroff, president of Second Harvest, a national food-bank network based in Chicago. ``What hope is there for them in this holiday season?''

Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, the incoming House Speaker and architect of the Contract, wants to overhaul the welfare system, saying it breeds waste and dependence on government handouts. He suggests that charities assume a greater share of the burden.

Under the ``Personal Responsibility Act,'' one of the Contract's 10 planks, a number of federal welfare programs, including food aid, would be consolidated and their funds reduced and converted into block grants. States would have flexibility in spending their grants, which Republicans say will allow them to design more inventive and efficient programs for the truly needy.

A coalition of religious groups and charities that feed the poor disputed the GOP plans at a Washington news conference on Tuesday. They said states and charities are already unable to cope with rising food-aid demands and will have to drop millions of Americans from food programs if funds are reduced.

THE Republicans will slash total federal welfare spending by $60 billion over four years, Mr. Beckman estimates. ``Newt Gingrich says churches can bear more of the cost of caring for people in need,'' he says. ``But, if you divide $60 billion among the 350,000 churches in the country, the math just doesn't work.''

Nutrition programs, including school meals, food for poor families, the elderly, and the homeless, would be reduced by $5 billion, or 12.7 percent, in 1996, Beckman says. By 2000, these cuts would total $30 billion.

A major impact would be on food stamps, now received by 27 million Americans - one in 10 people - at a cost of $24.5 million. About 50 percent of food stamp beneficiaries are children.

GOP spending cuts, opponents say, would force states to take 6 million people off the program next year or cut by 20 percent benefits now averaging 75 cents per person.

``We ... welcome the current debate on welfare reform, which proposes new solutions to old problems. Our concern is that legislation may go too far....,'' said Raymond Peacock, a Salvation Army official, at the conference. ``Government feeding programs are working and they should not be part of the welfare-reform debate.''

The same theme was sounded Monday by Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer (D), who said welfare reform ``shouldn't mean to cut.'' He warned that the GOP plan would have a ``devastating'' impact on ``cities across America.''

His comments accompanied the release of a new study by the US Conference of Mayors charting a 12 percent rise over the past year in the number of people in major cities seeking emergency food aid. On average, 15 percent of all food-aid requests went unmet.

The survey of 30 major cities also found that emergency shelter requests rose by 13 percent. Requests from homeless families alone rose by 21 percent. Unemployment, low wages, and other job-related problems were the leading causes of homelessness and hunger, the study said.

``We live in fear that some child will freeze to death,'' said Mr. Archer. ``This problem is growing and we need help.''

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