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The plight of the poor // The key task is reducing total amount of suffering

The bad news from the poverty front is that a resurgent economy has had no noticeable effect on the number of Americans seeking emergency help, from soup kitchens to homeless shelters. The awful news is that, with the passage of the "welfare repeal bill," conditions for the poor are likely to get a good deal worse.

Even where the numbers haven't grown, need has, leaders of Catholic Charities told reporters Tuesday. For example, Catholic Charities agencies provided emergency food and shelter for some 7.2-million people last year _ about the same number served in 1994. But the number of meals provided increased by 16 percent and the number of nights spent in Catholic-run shelters by 35 percent.

"And many of (the recipients) work," said the Rev. Fred Kammer, president of Catholic Charities. "In the last two years, over half of those who came for emergency food or shelter were not on welfare. We are finding that a job doesn't necessarily get you out of poverty."

The purpose of the press conference was to announce the results of the 1995 annual survey of Catholic Charities USA, but the subtheme was the devastation sure to come from the welfare reform for which both President Clinton and congressional Republicans have claimed credit. The survey findings were depressing: People have more _ and more complex _ problems, and charitable giving is down. Moreover, welfare reform _ Kammer calls it "welfare repeal" _ is poised to dump new millions of needy on the kindness of strangers. And the "end of welfare as we know it" will reduce federal funding for low-income programs by an average of $15-billion a year over the next seven years.

"To give you a sense of what it would take to raise an additional $15-billion (to replace the federal cuts)," said Kammer, "the total private giving to all human services in this country was only $11.7-billion last year. Giving to private charities would have to more than double next year to make up for government cuts."

But to leave the issue as between valiant _ but _ outgunned "good guys" and safety-net-shredding federal Scrooges is to ignore perhaps the toughest question of all: What to do about poverty?

Not even the most liberal Americans want merely to take better care of the poor _ in part because they understand that the more you improve the living conditions of the poor, the longer become the lines of those seeking the improvement. On the other hand, few of those who believe welfare does harm in the name of doing good want merely to leave the poor to their exemplary suffering.

The question is how to reduce the total amount of suffering. By increasing the amount of assistance? (But, to repeat, this inevitably increases the number of those needing assistance.) By stripping assistance of its anti-work inducements? (But this assumes that jobs are available if the poor would but bestir themselves to seek them.) By significantly improving the whole panoply of social services and job training and post-secondary education? (At a time when already trained, fully experienced and attitudinally sound workers are being downsized into idleness?) And anyway, as Kammer observed, Catholic Charities is serving growing numbers of working poor.

The questions matter. A colleague, Katherine Boo of the Washington Post, wrote recently of two public-housing friends. One, tired of living on the dole and longing to become self-sufficient, "rides six buses and hikes two miles to get her children in and out of day care and get herself to and from her (receptionist's) job." Her friend has remained on public assistance, for reasons that, when examined closely, make a good deal of sense.

And here's the kicker. The receptionist made $1,374 last month, out of which came $497 for rent, $380 for day care and $60 for transport _ leaving $437 for food, utilities, clothing and everything else. The stay-at-home friend had $2,999 in income (including foster-care payments) and rent of only $71.

I can't fit these two stories into the good guy/bad guy template that shapes most of our debate on the question of what to do about the poor. I'm perfectly willing to concede that much of what we do in the name of doing good turns out to have perverse effects.

But two things seem beyond argument. We need to stop penalizing people for trying to improve their lives, and we need to see to it that nobody who works full time should have to be poor.

Washington Post Writers Group

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