State gaps in safety net for the poor. Standards for assistance can vary widely at the local level

Holes in America's antipoverty safety net may be bigger and more numerous than previously thought. A Washington think tank, in a comprehensive look at that net, makes a case for improving the state and federal social programs that weave it. The report is one of numerous proposals and studies here that point toward efforts by political moderates and liberals to increase domestic social programs, from welfare to housing to health.

``The most significant finding,'' coauthor Robert Greenstein says of his study, ``is the extent to which the holes in the safety net are as large as they are in most states.'' Mr. Greenstein, widely respected for his careful statistical work, is director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, which released the report.

The study by Greenstein and a colleague, Isaac Shapiro, found that in 15 states the principal welfare program paid a family only half as much money as the poverty level, which is $11,203 for a family of four. The report concluded that in 21 states families must have incomes less than half the poverty level to be eligible for medicaid, the program that helps the poor financially. [By some estimates 17 million Americans are poor but ineligible for medicaid.]

The study also found that 28 states tax the incomes of working families who earn less than the poverty level. Ten states tax wage earners who make less than half the poverty level.

Many antipoverty programs, like medicaid, are largely funded by the federal government but administered by the states. Each state sets many of the rules for the programs within its own borders, including who is eligible. Thus, Greenstein notes, each state has a separate safety net for its own residents.

State safety-net programs vary greatly, Greenstein says, and in some cases are tied to a state's wealth. Thus, he notes, much of the message of the study ``is really aimed at the state level. ... For the foreseeable future [many] decisions in ... [social issues will] continue to be made at the state level,'' since austerity will probably remain the watchword in Washington.

During the 1980s there has been little impetus to expand programs that aid poor people who cannot help themselves. The emphasis has instead been on programs to get those out of poverty who can be self-sufficient.

Yet those needing continued assistance must also be considered, Greenstein says. ``I hope that this [study] will make a contribution to a reinvigorated debate, at both state and federal levels, about strengthening the safety net'' for them.

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