Poverty still challenges a resurgent US
Atlanta — Amid a strong economic recovery, the United States is challenged by the persistent poverty in which a significant number of Americans still live. Twenty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the law that symbolized the ``War on Poverty,'' many people have won their individual battles against deprivation. But others still know unemployment, hunger, substandard housing, and the other marks of want.
People are asking: How do some people find their way out of poverty while others do not? How effective is federal support in helping people break out of poverty? How large a role does individual initiative play in breaking out of poverty?
In a series of six articles (of which this is the first) the Monitor examines some of the battles under way against poverty in four Southern states. The series will conclude with a review of the divergent views held by leading experts over what role the federal government should play in combating poverty.
The second article takes the reader to Beaufort County, S.C., a rich-poor area best known for Hilton Head, a coastal resort island. In the late 1960s, the county attracted national attention with verified reports of severe malnutrition. Today, as in the rest of the nation, food stamps have ended much of the hunger among Beaufort County's poor, according to several studies.
But a recent Harvard University study estimates that some 20 million Americans go hungry at least part of each month. Many run out or nearly out of food stamps before the end of the month, the study says.
The third article examines a federal job-training program in Orlando, Fla. Businesses are lending a hand in deciding the kinds of training to offer and who gets it. But the program is big enough to train only about 5 percent of the poor people who are eligible, and targets for training youth and the least job-ready are not being met.
An area in rural Alabama where black farmers are a disappearing phenomenon is visited in the fourth article of the series. There, losses of farmland have been due in part to difficulty obtaining credit and multiple claims by heirs that result in sales of the land. An organization that has been helping poor farmers and others is today struggling to keep its own doors open as its federal funding has been cut back.
The scene shifts in the fifth article to another battle against poverty -- this one in Roanoke, Va. There, as in nearly 900 other places in the United States, a community-action program, a legacy of the federal War on Poverty, has survived 20 years of federal funding fights. The program, which uses job training, education, and counseling as its main weapons, could be ended by President Reagan's proposal to end all federal funding for community action.
In the concluding article, author Charles Murray defends the thesis of his new book, ``Losing Ground,'' in which he contends that welfare programs have increased rather than decreased poverty. Sar Levitan, director of the Center for Social Policy Studies at George Washington University, offers an opposite view -- that federal programs have considerably alleviated hunger and deprivation for millions. These and other experts, as well as the poor, offer their suggestions for improvements in efforts aimed at helping people break out of poverty.
Among winners in the War on Poverty are Lincoln Barrett and Joseph McDomick.
A loan officer for the Veterans Administration in Roanoke, Va., Mr. Barrett worked his way out of poverty. It wasn't easy. For a while he worked as a dishwasher, then as a file clerk. Today he owns a modest but comfortable home and plans to send his two children to college.
Mr. McDomick's route out of poverty led from a sharecropper's farm in Louisiana to his current job helping low-income farmers in Beaufort County, S.C. His grandmother inspired him to get an education and make the best of himself.
But in parts of rural Alabama, mules are still commonly used for plowing on small farms and many homes still lack indoor plumbing. And in the nation's cities, millions of poor people feel trapped in what appears to be a never-ending cycle of poverty.
Nationwide, the official poverty rate stands at 15.2 percent of the population -- some 35 million Americans. The rate has been climbing in the last several years, despite the overall economic recovery.
In fact, the rates of poverty today for whites (12.1), blacks (35.7), and Hispanics (28.4) are higher today than 10 years ago.
The Reagan administration's push for further cuts in some programs for the poor has rekindled national debate over the best ways to fight poverty.
Interviews with people who have won their own wars against poverty and with others who remain poor illustrate that poverty has many faces and that the ways individuals cope with it are myriad.
Most measure progress in small steps -- such as getting a new tin roof for a modest house or acquiring livestock to make a small farm a bit more prosperous.
But poverty remains a national as well as an individual problem, and the US still is searching for best ways to give a hand up to those most in need. Chart: PERCENT BELOW POVERTY LEVEL: Year All races Whites Blacks Hispanics 1959 22.4 18.1 55.1 NA 1960 22.2 17.8 NA NA Aug., 1964 -- Economic Opportunity Act (War on Poverty) signed by LBJ 1965 17.3 13.3 NA NA 1966 14.7 12.2 41.8 NA 1968 12.8 10.0 34.7 NA 1969 12.1 9.5 32.2 NA 1970 12.6 9.9 33.5 NA 1971 12.5 9.9 32.5 NA 1972 11.9 9.0 33.3 22.8 1973 11.1 8.4 31.4 21.9 1974 11.2 8.6 30.3 23.0 1975 12.3 9.7 31.3 26.9 1976 11.8 9.1 31.1 24.7 1977 11.6 8.9 31.3l 22.4 1978 11.4 8.7 30.6 21.6 1979 11.7 9.0 31.0 21.8 1980 13.0 10.2 32.5 25.7 1981 14.0 11.1 34.2 26.5 1982 15.0 12.0 35.6 29.9 1983 15.2 12.1 35.7 28.4 (1984 not yet available) Source: US Census Bureau