What Are the Poor Doing Tonight? - By Nat Hentoff - July 24, 1999

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 27 Jul 1999 20:27:53 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  Washington Post - Saturday, July 24, 1999; Page A19


     By Nat Hentoff

During the Great Depression, I would listen late at night to radio
broadcasts from jazz clubs around the country. Once, from the Panther Room
in Chicago, the announcer was describing the plush decor and the merry
imbibers as he introduced Thomas "Fats" Waller.

Before the exuberant stride pianist and singer began his set, Waller came
to the microphone and said, "I wonder what the poor people are doing

So do I -- amid the celebratory comments about our robust economy and
remarkably low unemployment rate. Yet, as reported in a dissenting series
on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered": "Even after eight years
of uninterrupted economic growth, one in five American children is growing
up poor. Child poverty is more widespread in this country than in any other
developed nation."

I doubt if any of the presidential candidates will highlight that
information in their television commercials. The Democrats will not want to
tarnish their spin on the Clinton-Gore record, and the free-market
Republicans believe that eventually good times will reach all but the
chronically shiftless or drug-addicted. But even some of the incorrigibly
unproductive have children.

A rare, insistent tribune for the poor in the Clinton administration is
Andrew Cuomo, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"We don't see the poor," he says. Not in the cities or in "the pockets of
rural poverty, which are much distant now."

Network, the National Catholic Social Justice Lobby, points out that
various studies on the effects of the vaunted welfare reform -- national
and state -- underestimate what actually happens to families off the rolls
because "those hardest hit are hardest to find."

Accordingly, Network conducted a 10-state, two-year survey to monitor the
implementation of welfare reforms. Contacted were 2,500 clients of 59
Catholic social service facilities. Forty-one percent of them do not have
working telephones and so are not included in most other polls and surveys.

Of those who have moved from welfare to work, 24 percent report that "they
cannot provide sufficient food for their children." Moreover, Latinos
receive fewer benefits and fare much worse than other ethnic groups. And
"since the 1996 [welfare reform] legislation, social service facilities
have become increasingly overloaded and can no longer fulfill the needs" of
all those who come to them.

Meanwhile,   the national health consumer group Families USA reports: "The
reward many are receiving for coming off welfare, even when they get jobs,
is the loss of health coverage."

As a result of welfare reform "1.25 million people with incomes under 200
percent of the federal poverty level lost their Medicaid coverage. . . .
[T]he majority were children under 19." More of those were minority
children. "Their numbers are likely to increase considerably as welfare
reform is fully carried out."

Our acclaimed prosperity is not even lifting all that many working-class
boats. Last Thanksgiving, "Nightline" quoted Larry Brown -- who runs Tufts
University's Center on Nutrition, Hunger and Policy: "We're seeing
predominantly working-class families coming into emergency food programs.
About 50 percent have a mother and a father."

The "Nightline" program added that Second Harvest, the largest national
network of food banks, "reports its clientele has grown by 10 percent a
year. . . . 26 million American people rely on food banks, food pantries or
soup kitchens."

Fats Waller is gone, but the poor never leave. However, says Larry Brown,
"For 8 to 10 billion dollars, using the current programs we already have,
we can be a nation that [at least] has eliminated hunger."

As for now, as Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) pointed out in the Nation, "No
one in government -- at the state, local or federal level -- is required to
track recipients once they have left the welfare rolls. We have moved from
'welfare as we know it' to welfare as we do not know it. We have a new
class of people -- Disappeared Americans -- many of whom are children." A
point that their advocate, the first lady, might want to address.

As for the president's recent road-show tour of poverty areas, Wellstone
says, "The Clinton administration has abandoned many of the most important
economic-justice concerns. I'd say it's a little late."


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