Lending a hand to the poor: how much should Washington do?

How much can, and should, government do to combat poverty in the US?

This question underlies much of the current debate over Reagan-endorsed cuts in specific social programs.On one side of the issue are those who say government spending has undermined individual initiative and perpetuated a pattern of poverty.

This is President Reagan's view. He recently told an audience of black Republicans that ''the result of all that big spending and taxing (over the last two decades) is that today those at the lower end of the economic ladder are the hardest hit of all.''

On the other side are those who hold that government efforts have tangibly improved the living conditions of the poor, and that continued spending would provide the training needed to help them break out of a cycle of poverty.

Sen. Thomas F. Eagleton (D) of Missouri, writing in a recent Atlantic magazine, asserts that the much-criticized food stamp program has demonstrably improved the standard of living of many poor families in the Appalachia region. What critics often forget, he said, is that such programs were created in direct response to the needs of Americans whose lives had remained relatively untouched by periods of prosperity.

For the present, however, the political pendulum seems to have swung decisively away from seeking ways to directly aid the roughly 32 million Americans defined as poor (earning less than $9,287 last year for a family of four).

''Now people are reacting - the programs have grown a lot,'' says Richard P. Nathan, a former Nixon administration official and now a Princeton professor of public and international affairs. ''I think this historic period of retrenchment is going to last a long time.''

The retrenchment comes at a time of economic recession. The bleak job prospects in many areas, such as parts of Appalachia and central Mississippi, as well as many urban areas, provide little escape from poverty for many who want to work and are desperately seeking it.

Among many of the poor interviewed by the Monitor, both in rural and urban areas, there's a good deal of confusion. They see a cost of living increase in one form of their government support, such as social security, only to find that cutbacks have reduced another kind of support.

The Reagan administration's basic response to the current economic crisis and the huge, mounting federal deficit, has been to chop federal spending. But former White House domestic policy advisor Martin Anderson defends the President's record with regard to the poor as ''quite compassionate.'' Reductions in the rate of growth of programs for the poor, he says, is primarily affecting persons with incomes at the ''upper edges'' of those qualifying for help.

Increasing welfare programs reduce national income by discouraging work, argues Edgar K. Browning, economist at the University of Virginia. Many on welfare are not able to work and ''would be in terrible shape without it,'' he concedes, but the ''safety net'' for the poor could be a great deal smaller.

Other analysts see definite negative effects from cuts in programs for the poor. The Congressional Budget Office, for example, finds that reductions in AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children), food stamps, housing assistance, and certain other programs for the poor could discourage work rather than encourage it.

Under recent changes, welfare recipients who begin to work can loose much or all of their AFDC after four months of work, often loosing medicaid coverage at the same time. Mothers receiving AFDC told this reporter they can't afford to take a low-paying job in return for loosing these benefits.

So what should government be doing about poverty? These are recommendations from some of the sources contacted for this series:

* Former Reagan aide Martin Anderson: closer screening of persons applying for welfare and other support; a nationwide, computerized job-information data bank available to the public.

* Former Nixon official Richard P. Nathan: greater use of ''workfare,'' which requires able recipients to do some work; additional help to keep teen-age mothers in school; extend AFDC to families with two parents in the home (something many states already do).

* Wilbur Cohen, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Johnson: repeal changes in AFDC law that discourage mothers from working; extend unemployment benefits in face of growing number of ''homeless'' Americans moving about looking for jobs; reduce military expenditures; raise the social security tax.

* Edgar K. Browning, University of Virginia economist: begin a cutback of up to 25 percent on social security (rather than such programs as food stamps) and on most welfare programs.

* Eugene Smolensky, director of the Institute for Research on Poverty: increase federal subsidies to employers hiring and training mothers on AFDC.

* Charles Bannerman, president of two private economic-development programs in central Mississippi: increase government support for private programs acting as go-betweens to help poor communities obtain federal and private funding.

* Tom Joe, director of the Center for the Study of Social Policy: inititate a ''serious, permanent, universal, unstigmatized'' jobs program matching the unemployed with the nation's pressing need for such projects as new sewer systems and reforestation.

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