Are states ready to take initiative in war on poverty?
Washington — The war on poverty, declared 17 years ago and still far from won, is moving out of the federal government and into the states. Within the next two months the Reagan administration will close the agency that has been a symbol of the national commitment to fight poverty, the Community Services Administration (CSA). An outgrowth of the old Office of Economic Opportunity, the CSA has been official lobbyist for the poor in Washington, and it has funneled millions of dollars into local projects, ranging from meals for the elderly to schools for dropouts.
Now most of that money will be going directly to the states where governors will decide how to use it.
"What this is is a transition from federal to state decisionmaking," says CSA director Dwight A. Ink in a interview sandwiched between meetings to complete the one task he has been appointed by President Reagan to perform: dismantle the agency by Sept. 30. And the soft-spoken, seasoned federal administrator has a reputation for meeting his deadlines.
Eight years ago President Nixon attempted to abolish the antipoverty Office of Economic Opportunity, but Congress balked and set up the CSA to take its place. This time an agreement made by a joint House and Senate committee has sealed the fate of the independent CSA. The decision is one more victory in Mr. Reagan's drive to shrink the federal government.
All that will remain of a federal antipoverty agency is a small "office of community services" in the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to administer grants to states. Mr. Ink says that he will not move to the new office and that there is no guarantee that any of the almost 950 CSA employees will either.
For many antipoverty workers, the move against the CSA looks like evidence that the Reagan administration does not care about the poor. They say they will be left to the mercy of the state governments, which often have been hostile to the disadvantaged.
"I can understand these points of view because there have been problems at the state level," Ink concedes. But he adds that there also have been problems at the federal level.
"I simply reject the notion that federal people are compassionate and state employees are indifferent and hostile to human concerns and human problems," says Ink, who also took issue with a recent Harris poll that said most Americans believe Reagan does not care for the poor, the elderly, and the handicapped.
"Of course, I don't agree with that," the CSA chief says. "If I felt that way, I would not have been willing to come in and take [this] job."
Ink's past credits include helping to start the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and running a highly successul aid mission to rebuild Alaska after the 1964 earthquake. To his current credit, he is working quietly, taking care not to critize the agency he is disbanding. ("He listens," says a longtime antipoverty activist who has been lobbying hard against the Reagan approach.)
Ink also allows that the war on poverty has had "some victories." He recalls that "in the middle '60s when the cities were burning" the federal government needed to set up a plan to combat urban blight. But to make such federal efforts permanent "discourages state and local governments from carrying out their responsibilities toward the disadvantaged and poor," the CSA director says.
Now is the proper time to turn the task over to the states, he says. The states have increased their share of funds for social programs during the last 10 or 15 years, he argues, and they are "better equipped today than the federal government was at the time OEO was launched [in 1965]" to fight the antipoverty war.
Low-income citizens and minorities must protect their interest through local elections, according to Ink, who also expects the news media to help out. "The development of TV dramatizes these problems in a way that just didn't happen" in earlier decades, he says.
He concedes that the local programs will vary. "There will not be a uniform level of quality," he says."When it goes to 50 states, you'll have different approaches."
According to the plan forged on Capitol Hill, the states will divide $355 million in funds targeted for low-income communities, and $35 million will be set aside for national projects such as migrant worker programs.
The Reagan budget knife has sliced about 25 percent off spending for low-income projects. But the antipoverty lobby managed to salvage one major victory: The grants will be earmarked for the poor. Reagan had pushed for tying no strings to the grants, but critics said such a move would allow states to ignore low-income projects completely.
Under the compromise, Reagan has won removal of the independent antipoverty agency, the CSA, and he has put control into the hands of states. But even if it has to move to a new battlefield, the war on poverty will still be waged.