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A Practical Antipoverty Step

August 23, 2000



Tackling the problems of child poverty in the world's most prosperous nation appears to be a bipartisan issue, since both major political parties have vowed to leave no child behind.

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A study by the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University indicates the scale of this task. An estimated 13.3 million children in the United States still live in poverty. That's some 3 million more than two decades ago.

The politicians could start fulfilling their vows by tackling a problem right at hand - the declining numbers of Americans taking advantage of a program that helps feed families and thus eases the burden of poverty.

Over the past five years, food stamp recipients have dropped from 27.5 million to 18.2 million. A report by America's Second Harvest, a food-bank network, examined some likely reasons for falling food-stamp participation. A major cause, it concluded, is increasingly complicated, restrictive application processes in many states. Though it's a federal program, each state sets its own eligibility rules. These have been toughened over recent years, largely in response to federal desires to root out fraud.

Eight or 10-page applications, probing such details as ownership of burial plots and setting unreasonably low limits on the allowed value of assets like the family car, are common.

But Washington's attitude is changing. The Agriculture Department, which administers food stamps, is now trying to boost enrollment. In Congress, a pending bill, the Hunger Relief Act, would make needed changes in food-stamp eligibility. The car-value criteria, for instance, would be dropped and the amount families spend on housing given more weight.

Greater use of food stamps, while no panacea, would help ease the poverty among children in America. Families would have a little more financial freedom.

Long-term solutions to poverty lie in expanded educational opportunity, economic development, and changes of culture and attitude, helped along by today's welfare reform.

Meanwhile, the supplementary help provided by food stamps should be fully utilized, without undue complications.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society