The Reagan Impact On the South's Poor

By Steve Suitts

Vol. 4, No. 2, 1982, pp. 15-16

More than three decades ago, after the country had climbed up from the Deep Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt said that the South was the "nation's number one economic problem." A few years ago. facing a sluggish national economy, the president of Westinghouse declared that the South is now "the number one economic opportunity for business." The changes have been remarkable. In the last decade the region experienced the most rapid economic activity in its recorded history, and in population and gross income it exceeded the nation's growth.

Yet, other statistics tell us that Southerners remain the country's poorest people and the poorest paid workers. Only in Texas among the Southern states does the per capita income equal the national average. In Mississippi, per capita personal income is only 69 percent of the nation's, and the average Alabamian has only three-fourths of the income of the average American. In the Deep South, industrial jobs pay only about 68 percent of the wages for the same jobs outside the region.

The incomes of Southern families, especially black families, remain very limited. In 1976, in the census South, 25 percent of white families earned less than $8,000, and one in three families earned less than $10.000. Of the nearly three million black families in the same region, 49 percent earned less than $8.000, and more than 60 percent earned less than $10,000. Nearly one in three of all black families in the region were below the poverty level in 1976.

As this distribution of income suggests, the heads of Southern families--and most of them do work--are poorly paid, and black wage earners are disproportionately concentrated in low-paying jobs. Indeed, the gap between the incomes of black and white families in the South remains comparable to that of 30 years ago, when the region had legal segregation. For every dollar the white family earned in 1950 in the nation, the black family earned 51 cents. In the South in 1950, the black family had 56 cents for every dollar available to the white family. By 1975 the income of black families had risen in the region and the nation to 61 percent of white families' income. But by 1980 black families" income in the South had dropped to nearer 57 percent of white income.

Perhaps most disturbing, black males' income in 1950 was 58 percent of white males' income. By 1975 black males' income had dropped to 57 percent of white male income, and in 1980 it was nearer 55 percent. Really not surprising, the 11 Southern states remain the home of one-third of the nation's poor and one-half of the nation's black poor.

Into this era of simultaneously accelerating economic activity and sinking personal reward came Ronald Reagan, who interpreted his victory margin of less than 5 percent as a "mandate" for major changes in the role of the federal government and the allocations of the federal budget. These changes presume the existence of a wasteful, bloated bureaucracy of excessive benefits to a huge lot of undeserving and a small number of deserving, truly needy individuals. The reality is very different.

Though similar contrasts can be shown for housing, Medicaid and employment training, a brief look at food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) shows how Reagan is cutting away our promise to the poor before it began to be truly fulfilled.


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There are wide variations in the level of AFDC benefits for families across the country, although the composition of the family may be the same. For example, before Oct. 1,1981, the maximum monthly benefit to a family of three with no additional income was only $96 in Mississippi and $122 in Tennessee. In New York it has been more than $200.

Even before October 1981, AFDC payments have been received by a relatively small percentage of the South's population. Less than 7 percent of Mississippi's population received support from this program, and in no other Southern state was the percentage as high. In Texas, for example, only three percent of the state's population were recipients of AFDC.

When compared to the number of poor in the South today. these statistics belie the notion that the welfare rolls. before the budget cuts, included many who weren't needy. The numbers of poor among the total population in most Southern states were three or four times larger than the numbers of those on AFDC. In Alabama, 16.4 percent of the population was poor, while only 4.6 percent received welfare benefits. In Mississippi, the 7 percent of the population on AF DC was dwarfed by the 26 percent of the population in poverty.

These comparisons add up to one important fact about the welfare program that existed before Oct. 1, 1981: many more poor children in the South were in families without AFDC support than with it. In Florida, less than 40 percent of the children in poverty received benefits from the government's major cash assistance program for the poor. In the 11 Southern states, only 3.5 percent of the population receives cash assistance from AFDC while more than 10 percent of the families within the South had incomes below 75 percent of the poverty level.

In the program which provides food stamps to the poor and the poorly paid, the number of poor who have actually received benefits in the South is considerably below the total poor population of the region. At the beginning of 1980, nearly two out of five poor families in the South did not receive anv food stamps.

Benefits provided under the Food Stamp Program are determined largely by the amount of money needed to obtain an adequate, nutritional diet. A family of three in Arkansas receiving the maximum AFDC payment of $161 before Oct. 1 could have received $160 in food stamps. An AFDC mother in Arkansas probably spent more than $23 of her AFDC payment on food, leaving less than $138 a month for rent, utilities, transportation, clothing, and other essential expenses of herself and two children.

Life with both AFDC benefits and food stamps has been no easy ride for the poor in the South. Combined benefits provided by AFDC and food stamps were extremely low even before cutbacks. Few states provided combined benefits equal to the official poverty level. As of May, 1981, nine states--all in the South--provided combined benefits which were less than 65 percent of the poverty level.

These numbers do not deny that programs aimed at reducing poverty have been at times poorly administered or even ill-conceived. Much of the government's efforts in the area have probably been ineffective. Nonetheless, the national government's commitment to ending poverty has not been what it is portrayed to be by this Administration. By no analysis can the programs in the South be shown as overly generous to the unneedy.

Yet the truly needy of the South are being abandoned by the present and anticipated policies of the national government. This Administration has offered nothing that signals an attempt to rethink any misjudgments of the last 15 years in the war against poverty, nor to redirect or reshape the government's role in helping poor citizens become productive, tax-paying citizens. To date, this Administration offers hardly more than a dedicated, official effort to remove any form of government aid from the poor. While appeals to volunteerism and the magic of the private sector are presented as alternatives, cold facts suggest that the national government has now transformed the war on poverty of 15 years ago to a war on the I poor today. If this effort continues, the South's poor--both those who now work and those who do not--shall face a future of crippled opportunities and the nation will have surrendered the truest, most selfless element of the American character.

Steve Suitts is the executive director of the Southern Regional Council. This article is adapted from remarks at the Southern Labor Institute in December.