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Jewish World Review August 2, 1999 /20 Av 5759

Nat Hentoff

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What are the poor people doing tonight? -- 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 tonight."

So do I -- amid the celebratory comments about our robust economy and remarkably low unemployment rate. Yet, as noted 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 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 national and state studies of the effects of the vaunted welfare reform 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 reform. Contacted were 2,500 clients of 59 Catholic social-services 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 rewards many are receiving for coming off welfare, even when they get jobs, is the loss of health coverage.

"1.25 million people with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level lost their Medicaid coverage as a result of welfare reform... the 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."

"Nightline" added that Second Harvest, the largest national network of food banks, "reports its clientele has grown by 10 percent a year.... Twenty-six 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 eight to 10 billion dollars, using the current programs we already have, we can be a nation that 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." This is a point that their advocate, the first lady, might want to address.

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

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Ammendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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