Reagan's Way of Eliminating Poverty

By Steve Suitts

Vol. 4, No. 3, 1982, pp. 11-12

Last month the Census Bureau confirmed that Southerners remain closer kin to poverty than anyone else in the country. Southern states, as of 1980, continue to have the nation's highest rates of poverty. One in four of all Mississippians, for example, are poor, and so are nearly half of that state's blacks. In no Southern state was the extent of black poverty less than twenty-nine percent.

This news was followed by the general silence of the region's politicians, as it has been since poverty statistics were first compiled in the early 1960s. When pressed, some of the white officials responded like a prideful father whose illegitimate, poorest relation had just arrived on his doorstep: get them out of sight as soon as possible and tell the neighbors they aren't related and, no, they certainly aren't poor.

Ironically, with the election of a former California governor over an incumbent President from Georgia, the White House has transformed Southern traditions into national stateways. It is proposing to eliminate poverty in this country by removing federal expenses to combat it by making the poor pay for being poor, by giving poverty away and by defining poor people out of existence.

The first step came when the Reagan budget was adopted by Congress last summer. While expenditures for programs aimed- directly for the poor constituted less than one in eighteen of the dollars in that year's federal budget, sixty percent of the entire cuts which the President asked for and received came out of these programs. The same pattern--to a lesser extent--will apply in the budget for next year. On the basis of current proposals, it's likely that thirty percent of all cuts will come out of these same programs.

Inspired by the pages of the Congressional Record of the 1960s, the Reagan Administration's second step is to make the poor pay hard cash before they become eligible for any government assistance. Already there are propos-


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als in the hopper in Congress and floating around in concept papers at the White House to initiate the universal requirement for "co-payments" by the poor. If, for example, a mother wants a prescription filled under Medicaid for her child, she will have to put up some money before the government pays the remainder.

From its start, the food stamp program was plagued by this notion that if the poor really want and need something, they ought to put up some money of their own. Volumes of studies show that such a policy assures that the very poorest families will be the ones the program fails to reach. This strategy no doubt reduces the number of recipients, and allows some Southern senators to argue, as they did two decades ago, that the poor really aren't poor. Since they don't participate in the programs, they obviously don't need them.

The third step being considered is the withdrawal of federal responsibility to help the poor. The White House's major proposal on "new federalism" seeks to make the states take on the task of financing food stamps and the cash assistance program for families with dependent children (AFDC) while the federal government takes over Medicaid and the financing of ten or fifteen year bloc grant programs. This venture to define the relations between state and federal governments does not propose a shift from the federal to the state the entire responsibility for paving highways, financing sewer systems, or fostering agriculture. Rather, new federalism is a proposal to get rid of the federal responsibility in the two major programs aimed directly at the poor.

To finish the job, the White House has shown increased interest in defining people out of poverty. The Administration's first domestic advisor held the view that poverty no longer existed in America. and the President has repeated a weakened version of this sentiment in several news conferences. The Administration appears eager to give a cash value to all government services which the poor receive in order to compute the income of people in deciding if they are poor. By this method, the number of poor would drop since the value of services a family received would price them out of poverty. For example, a family of four living in a housing project with a total income of $6,000 would be assessed about $3,600 (the average rent in Atlanta) for their five-room apartment. With $9,600 income calculated, the family would then be ineligible for other government aid, such as medical care, because the family "makes" more than the $8,700 poverty limit.

No White House official, however, has proposed to calculate the cash value of any government service to anyone else for purposes of paying taxes or deciding if the person is eligible for the program.

Fifteen years ago efforts to achieve the same results by a south Alabama state senator helped earn Roland Cooper the nickname of "The Wily Fox From Wilcox" County. Still in Alabama's law books is one of Cooper's bills that would permit the governing board in his Blackbelt county to authorize payments for those on welfare to purchase tickets to leave the state. If the Reagan Administration's major efforts to eliminate poverty by making the poor more poor continue to gain momentum, the schemes of the "Wily Fox" and other past vocal and silent Southern politicians who fought aid to the black poor may look increasingly generous by comparison.