Reagan 'safety net': why it could fail many truly needy

President Reagan has insisted all along that the "safety net" below the nation's "truly needy" will not be disturbed. But as the administration's budget-cutting plans become known in greater detail, evidence mounts that there will be severe -- and in some cases disruptive -- impacts on many Americans of lesser means.

In studying White House social welfare spending plans, congressional researchers have determined that about 700,000 families (including 1.3 million children) will lose some, if not all, their public assistance benefits. Cutbacks in school lunch subsidies are likely to mean that 35,000 school districts end their lunch programs, US House of Representatives staff research shows.

The administration wants to reduce categorical social service and health programs by 25 percent and turn them over to the states as block grants. Rep. Fortney Stark (D) of california, chairman of the House public assistance subcommittee, has projected what this could mean for various aid programs in each of the 50 states. Some examples:

In New York, officials would be able to respond to 5,500 fewer cases of child abuse a neglect; in Missouri, 2,300 aged and disabled persons would lose home-delivered meals and meals in senior citizen centers; in Georgia, 1,200 individuals would lose community services as an alternative to care in mental institutions; 5,500 children from low-income families in Illinois would lose day care.

The impact could be even greater, some critics suspect, with states no longer required to match federal funding.

The President's plans to abolish the Legal Services Corporation (which funds poverty law centers) could make it harder for the poor to obtain the help to which they are entitled, others think.

The administration has confirmed that proposed cutbacks in social service programs may be "painful" for some Americans, as Health and Human Services Secretary Richard Schweiker put it on Capitol Hill.

More than 80 percent of Agriculture Department cutbacks (one of the largest areas of the Carter budget to be cut) will come from nutrition programs designed for the poor, Agriculture Secretary John Block told the House Budget Committee. These include food stamps, school lunches, and aid for infants and pregnant women.

Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan last week explained to members of Congress proposed changes in unemployment benefits that would adversely affect about 1 million Americans.

The administration says many people receiving these forms of federal aid do not constitute the "truly needy," but others disagree.

The Childrens' Defense Fund notes that recipients of aid to families with dependent children -- 66 percent, or more than 7 million, of whom are children -- already have seen their assistance eroded by inflation as well as state government cutbacks in some regions.

The Census Bureau last week reported that the median income of families receiving food stamps is $5,300, which is more than $2,000 below the federal poverty level.

Such things as the closing of federally supported day-care facilities, some experts think, actually could force working mothers back onto the welfare rolls, as could the cumulative effect of reducing other aid.

"Reducing eligibility will hit those people who have their noses barely above the welfare line -- those for whom food stamps make the difference," says John Calhoun of the Child Welfare League of America.

Some argue that the so-called "working poor" ought to be included among the "truly needy," especially those from older metropolitan areas where many social problems are concentrated.

In its recent analysis, the US Conference of Mayors terms the Reagan budget "a disaster for the cities." Conference president Richard Hatcher (of Gary, Ind.) complains that while aid to states and communities accounts for 14 percent of federal spending, 66 percent of the cutbacks will come from these programs.

The result, the mayors' conference warns, is "likely to be sharp reductions in service levels, the termination of benefits for literally millions of needy families, and potentially large increases in property taxes."

For his part, Reagan likens all of this to the days in California when reform measures he pushed as governor helped reduce welfare roles considerably. Many thousands of aid recipients "simply disappeared," he says, when e ligibility requirements were stiffened.

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