Poverty rate in Southern states rising in the 1980s, study says

Atlanta's metropolitan population is growing rapidly. New office buildings and condominiums are opening here like blossoms on a magnolia tree - only year round.

Yet even in the midst of such apparent prosperity, 30 men were turned away one recent evening from a church shelter for the homeless for lack of space inside.

Forced to remain outside, one man said it was hard for him to keep the will to work (often in day labor pools at minimum wages) when he had to sleep outside somewhere all night.

Here, and across the South and the nation, continuing signs of economic prosperity and recovery mix with continuing signs of poverty.

A new analysis shows the poverty rate in the South continues to exceed the national rate. This comes as final touches are put on President Reagan's next federal budget, with emphasis still on domestic spending cuts.

Despite the boom of the Sunbelt in the past decade or so, the numbers of poor and the rate of poverty are again on the increase, as they are nationally. Both nationally and in the South, the trend had been the other way, for the better during the '60s, with little change during the '70s.

And in the South, the increases in poverty are mostly ''home grown,'' not a product of new poor moving to the South from other states, says Steve Suitts, executive director of the Southern Regional Council, based here.

The SRC, a nonpartisan organization that researches the issues of poverty and race in the South, has just published a report entitled ''Patterns of Poverty,'' an analysis of poverty in the South. It is based on Census data and its own findings.

There is ''an urgent need for public policies and private initiatives'' to reverse the trend of rising poverty, according to the report.

The federal definition of poverty in 1983 for a family of four was $10,178, not including noncash, federal benefits. The definition changes year to year.

In an interview, Mr. Suitts says one of the findings that emerges from this look at poverty in the South is that in many ways the poor are just like everyone else.

There is a ''general notion that the poor are less worthy, and less deserving , less energetic, less willing to work,'' he says. But the data indicate that for most of them, this is not so.

Most of those who are able to work do work, Suitts says.

Census data show that when you eliminate two kinds of households whose members are least able to work - those headed by persons 65 or older and those headed by women with children - eight out of 10 of the remaining households have someone in them that works.

''People don't want to sit home and be bored the rest of their lives,'' Suitts says.

And many of the poor do not receive food stamps or other noncash federal benefits, he says.

Among those receiving such benefits, the largest proportion consists of people in households headed by a female single parent with children and those households of people 65 or older, Suitts noted.

Among blacks in the South, 38 percent are living below the poverty line, as compared with 36 percent nationally, according to Census Bureau data cited in the report.

Some Southern states, and especially small towns and rural areas, have ''been stagnant or lost ground in their per capita income'' as the economy shifts from less manufacturing to more service-sector jobs, says Jesse L. White, executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board.

Education reform is the South's long-range strategy to combat these economic problems, Mr. White says. Another recent report cited some Southern states as leading educational reform.

The short range strategy, he says, is greater use of job retraining programs and more help from universities to enable small businesses to start or expand.

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