Jewish World Review Nov. 21, 2001 / 6 Kislev 5762

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

The face of hunger is changing -- WHEN President Bush announced a record-breaking $1 billion in grants to help the homeless Tuesday, he did not address a mystery that his announcement raises:

Why, at a time when Washington is celebrating shrinking poverty and welfare rolls, have the needs of the hungry and homeless as measured by private food banks continued to grow?

Blaming the terror events of 9-11 is not enough. Food banks, homeless shelters and the charity networks that serve them have been reporting growing demand in recent years, even when jobs, the economy and welfare reform were showing spectacular success.

Curious, I turned to some experts, beginning with Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. He was one of the main authors of the welfare reform legislation that a conservative Congress pressured President Clinton into signing in 1996. Long an advocate of attaching conditions to government support programs, Rector assured me that the growing food bank demand was not a sign of growing poverty but a sign of people seeking the path of least resistance to free food.

"The most lenient program wins all the clients," he said. "As welfare reform goes forward, the more people you probably will see going for a free handout to the food bank. But I don't think it is a fair measure of hunger, employment or poverty because all of those indicators are going down."

He's right about the indicators, at least, up until 9-11. Poverty among children is down by nearly a third since 1976 to 16.2 percent, census figures show. The rising tide of prosperity has lifted even the boats of black and Hispanic children, who are showing some of their lowest poverty figures in recorded history.

Poverty declines even more when you include some cash and in-kind programs that the census normally does not count when measuring household income. These include the Earned Income Tax Credit and non-cash benefits like food stamps, housing subsidies, medical insurance, school lunch, child tax credits and child care subsidies.

Yet, while poverty by official measures has declined, other recent studies show food bank demand has climbed.

More than 23 million Americans nationwide sought emergency hunger relief this year from private food banks and other charities in the America's Second Harvest network, according to a recently released study commissioned by the national network That's an increase of about 7.5 percent, or nearly two million people, since 1997.

Another four-year survey of users of private emergency facilities by NETWORK, a national Catholic social service advocacy group, found that 80 percent of those surveyed who had lost benefits like food stamps or medical assistance when they left welfare said that their job incomes did not cover the benefits they lost.

"Welfare reform has worked better than I thought it would but it hasn't reduced poverty nearly as much as it should have," said Wendell Primus, a welfare reform expert at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning economic think tank in Washington.

Primus' research indicates, for example, that 725,000 families at the lowest income levels actually lost ground in spending power relative to 1995 because of taxes, lost benefits or new expenses they incurred related to their new job after leaving welfare.

Rector does have a point, many say, when he speaks of the attractive convenience of food banks. Many workers who still are poor enough to be eligible for food stamps find it easier to turn to a food bank than leave their new job during the day to fill out forms and stand in line for hours on a chance of getting food stamps.

As Congress faces an October, 2002 deadline for reauthorizing the five-year-old welfare reform legislation, legislators can point to many successes. But, for those trying earnestly to work their way out of dependency, improvements are needed to help "make work pay," as the Clinton administration used to say.

States also may need additional dollars from Washington to cope with rising caseloads, if economic gloom continues. More states might also consider some blended reforms that combine work with welfare for workers who genuinely are struggling to make ends meet.

Both sides of the welfare debate also agree that more needs to be done to encourage two-parent families instead of the single-parent families that now predominate in lower-income households.

Congress doesn't need to fix that which is not broken in its assistance to needy families. But, for those who remain stuck in the economic basement, welfare reform can still use some reforming.

Comment on JWR contributor Clarence Page's column by clicking here.


11/15/01: Our troubled sense of trust
11/08/01: Lessons about terror from the 'hood
11/06/01: Getting used to the 'new normal'
11/02/01: Wicked ways to make them talk
10/30/01: It's not just about bin Laden
10/26/01: More than mail fell between the cracks
10/23/01: Terrorists threaten urban recovery, too
10/18/01: Sometimes, assassination warranted
10/15/01: Self-censorship rises again
10/12/01: Contradictions illustrate the complicated nature of the new terrorism
10/05/01: Look who's 'profiling' now
10/01/01: Don't trash liberty to save it
09/28/01: Life, love and cell phones during wartime
09/24/01: How to catch an elusive terrorist
09/21/01: The war I was waiting for
09/17/01: When rage turns to hate
09/13/01: Terror attack tests US, let's give right response
09/06/01: U.S. should have stayed and argued
09/04/01: Columbine killer's parents get upclose and personal
08/31/01: Virtual kids? Log me out
08/28/01: Two Africans, one black, one white, same fight
08/23/01: Sharpton for president
08/20/01: Shaking up the rules on keeping secrets
08/16/01: Bush's u-turn on racial goals
08/09/01: Outsider Bubba comes 'in' again
08/06/01: Not ready for 'color-blindness' yet
08/02/01: Immigration timing couldn't be better
07/26/01: Summer of Chandra: An international traveler's perspective
07/17/01: Overthrowing a régime is only the beginning
07/10/01: Big Brother is watching you, fining you
07/05/01: Can blacks be patriotic? Should they be?
06/19/01: Get 'real' about marriage
06/12/01: Amos, Andy and Tony Soprano
06/07/01: Getting tough with the Bush Twins
06/05/01: Bringing marriage back into fashion
05/31/01: "Ken" and "Johnnie": The odd-couple legal team
05/24/01: Sharpton's challenge to Jackson
05/22/01: Test scores equal (a) MERIT? (b) MENACE? (c) ALL OF ABOVE?
05/17/01: Anti-pot politics squeeze the ill
05/15/01: Was Babe Ruth black?
05/10/01: U.N.'s torture caucus slaps Uncle Sam
05/08/01: 'The Sopranos' a reflection of our times
05/03/01: 'Free-fire' zones, then and now
05/01/01: War on drugs misfires against students
04/26/01: Another athlete gets foot-in-mouth disease
04/23/01: 'Slave' boat mystery reveals real tragedy
04/19/01: McVeigh's execution show
04/12/01: Not this time, Jesse
04/05/01: Dubya is DEFINITELY his own man, you fools!
04/02/01: Milking MLK
03/29/01: The candidate who censored himself?
03/22/01: "Will Hispanics elbow blacks out of the way as the nation's most prominent minority group?"
03/19/01: Blacks and the SATs
03/15/01: The census: How much race still matters in the everyday life of America
03/12/01: Jesse is a victim!
03/08/01: Saving kids from becoming killers
03/01/01: Parents owe "Puffy" and Eminem our thanks

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