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Economy masks problems of poor

Published Sep. 29, 2005

Guess who is still with us, still trying to get some attention:

Poor people.

With all of the exuberance that has greeted the 1990s economic boom _ rising employment rates, shrinking welfare rolls, falling crime rates, declining teen pregnancy rates _ you might think America's poverty problems have been solved at last.

Think again. Behind that economic good news, poverty rates remain stubbornly high as many low-income Americans go off the welfare rolls and onto payrolls, without making enough money to lift their families out of poverty.

In a rally with business leaders and former welfare recipients in Chicago, President Clinton justifiably celebrated the magnificent degree to which welfare-to-work initiatives have exceeded expectations, helped along by the booming economy of the 1990s.

But, to twist an old saying, every silver lining has its cloud. Many welfare recipients have moved off welfare only to join the working poor because they are not able to make enough money to lift their families above poverty. Many other poor people have become more invisible, below the radar of caseworkers, journalists or social policy experts.

Three years into the biggest overhaul in the history of public assistance, a wave of new studies leads to three general conclusions: First, more adults are leaving the welfare rolls at a faster rate than anyone expected. Second, at least half of them are finding work. And third, we're not completely certain about what has happened to those who have been left behind. Many appear to have fallen through the cracks without work or benefits at a time when it has become easier than ever for the middle class and the political establishment to forget that they exist.

The day before Clinton's Chicago appearance, the Urban Institute, a leading Washington think tank, reported that the number of people on welfare has fallen to 7.3-million from 12.2-million when the president signed the Republican-drafted welfare reform bill in August 1996.

But the report also described the precarious position in which many former recipients have been left. In particular, most women who leave welfare are working in low-wage service jobs and struggle with coordinating work schedules and child care, the report said, and at least two-thirds do not have insurance from their employers.

Also, the General Accounting Office reported that food stamp enrollment, which has fallen 27 percent since 1996, has fallen faster than the numbers of people eligible for food stamps. Some who have left the welfare rolls mistakenly believe they no longer qualify for food stamps.

One of the gloomiest reports on the current plight of America's poor comes, of all places, from a new paper by Charles Murray, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and a famously controversial booster of welfare reform.

In "The Underclass Revisited," Murray laments the persistence of the "underclass," the term popular in the 1980s for people who remain mired in poverty over several generations despite vigorous government programs to lift them out.

Behind the happy statistics about crime, poverty and teen pregnancy, he produces figures to show sad realities: Crime is down, but "criminality" persists. "We don't notice, because so many of the chronically criminal are in jail," he writes.

Joblessness is down, but the gap in unemployment between young black and white males has been growing over the past four years of economic boom. The percentage of children born outside of wedlock has declined over the past four years for blacks and Latinos but still hovers above 60 percent for blacks, while the white out-of-wedlock rate has climbed above 20 percent.

But while the poor persist, public concern has not, Murray laments.

Reformers, he writes, now struggle against what he calls "custodial democracy," whereby mainstream America "subsidizes but also walls off the underclass," presuming they "cannot be expected to function as citizens."

Or, at least, they cannot be expected to vote, which means their problems probably will not get much attention during the upcoming presidential campaigns.

I hope I am wrong about that. I hope we Americans take the successes of the welfare overhaul as only the first step in the larger task of building a true society of opportunity for everyone. The good news about the economy is great, but, for poor folks, it could be a lot better.

+ Clarence Page is a Chicago Tribune columnist. +

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