The Federal budget; Few cuts for middle class, but 'working poor' feels brunt of social program trims

If you're middle class, you haven't been affected very much. If you're very poor, caught by the government's ''safety net'' of social programs, you've been relatively well protected.

But if you're just getting along, struggling at a low-paying job to make ends meet, Reagan changes in social programs have been as startling as an unexpected icy breeze.

Over the last three years, it's been the ''working poor'' who have been most affected by cuts in those government programs that provide aid to people. The President's proposed 1985 budget, sent to Congress Wednesday, continues this trend.

''This is a reflective budget, consolidating the (social program) changes of the past three years,'' says welfare specialist Edward Berkowitz, a professor at George Washington University.

''The administration has been less sympathetic to the working poor than the so-called 'deserving poor,' '' continues Berkowitz. ''The brunt of their efforts are to make sure people who can work don't get welfare.''

To see where Reagan administration cuts in this area have hit hardest, it helps to take a look at which broad category of social programs has been handled with kid gloves, and which has been boxed about the ears.

The behemoth social insurance programs - social security, federal pensions, unemployment compensation, medicare - have received relatively gentle treatment. Spending on these huge programs continues to rise: The '85 budget proposes to spend $304 billion on these programs, up from $298 billion in 1984.

Their rate of growth has fallen from a historic level of 9 percent a year to a projected 2.3 percent. Much of that shrinkage was caused by lower inflation, as Health and Human Services officials pointed out in a briefing.

You don't have to be poor to qualify for these vast programs. A large chunk of that $304 billion will go to the US middle class - 1 in 6 Americans, for instance, receives social security.

On the other hand, those social programs aimed solely at the poor - Aid for Families with Dependent Children, food stamps - have been treated much more harshly than social insurance.

The cash available for this category of program is actually shrinking. The budget projects that the government will spend less on welfare, in real terms, in 1984 than it did in 1981. Reagan proposes to slash another billion dollars in 1985.

Administration officials have long said their budget shears would leave the truly needy untouched, and snip only the relatively well-off from welfare rolls. Evidence suggests that social program budget cuts have, indeed, been focused on the top level of welfare recipients - the working poor.

Take AFDC, the largest strictly ''welfare'' program. When the first round of Reagan cuts descended on AFDC, 40 percent of benefitting families with a working head of household became ineligible, according to an American Enterprise Institute paper.

Or consider food stamps. Changes in the program over the last three years have successfully ''targeted program benefits on the lowest income groups,'' writes William Hoagland of the Senate Budget Committee. (Congress, however, has approved only about half the proposed food stamp cuts.)

The biggest question raised by all this, of course, is whether it's fair to make these welfare cuts - especially while the large, middle-class-oriented social insurance programs grow.

Liberals don't think it is. Even if those thrown off the rolls can really make it on their own, Democrats say, the action increases the total of hunger, misery, and struggle in the US.

''They're mean-spirited,'' grumbles one expert about the cuts.

Given limited government resources, administration officials counter, the cuts are actions that have to be taken. Kevin Hopkins, White House director of policy information, writes in a recent socioeconomic journal article about what he calls the ''dole mentality,'' in which welfare changes are judged according to how many people ''lost benefits, regardless of their individual need or condition.''

Overall, the President's '85 budget proposes spending $370 billion next year on social programs. There are few major changes. Some highlights:

Social security. Spending on old age and disability pensions is projected to increase $11.5 billion next year, to $191.2 billion. No major changes in the program are proposed.

Medicare/medicaid. The cost of these health programs will spiral up to an estimated $92 billion next year. The budget proposes a number of changes to hold down costs (some of which have already been rejected once by Congress): freezing physician payments for one year and cost-sharing for medicaid recipients, among other things.

AFDC. The cost of this program is put at $6.7 billion in '85, a slight increase. Mandatory ''workfare'' for recipients is proposed.

Food stamps. Spending is projected to decline somewhat, as the economy improves, to $10.7 billion.

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