Poverty

August 16, 1992|By Peter Honey

Despite his self-confessed aversion to welfarism, George Bush presides over an administration that has been forced to dole out more on low-income health, welfare and housing assistance than any other in history.

Yet as Mr. Bush nears the end of his term, poverty rates are hovering near their worst levels since Lyndon Johnson launched his "war on poverty," in 1964.

Congressional researchers calculate that federal and state poverty assistance during the Bush term has averaged more than $200 billion a year -- an unprecedented high -- for 76 programs, including cash grants, medical care, Head Start education, job training, housing and a variety of social and legal services.

All the largess, however, has brought no better quality of life to the needy, says Paul Leonard of the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Budget increases have been swallowed up by soaring costs for entitlements, especially health care, he says, and in the few cases where benefits have increased, this has usually been in spite of, rather than because of, the Bush Administration.

White House budget director Richard Darman seemed to confirm this when told a House Budget Committee recently that Mr. Bush proposed $18.3 billion in cuts to benefit programs in 1990 but Congress reduced them to only $1.1 billion. In the last three years, he said, lawmakers had approved less than half the cuts in social programs proposed the White House.

Meanwhile almost 45 percent of an estimated 9.6 million low-income renters (4.1 million) cannot afford housing, housing analysts say. This is slightly worse than the previous high in 1983, they add, and is aggravated by the fact that the number of low-rent units available has since declined by 7 percent.

The Census Bureau says that 33.5 million Americans, or 13.5 percent, lived in poverty last year -- about 2 million more poor than in 1989.

Of those, 5.1 million households live in sub-standard housing, or must spend more than half their incomes on rent and utilities, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

By April food stamps had become a "second currency" for a record 25.4 million Americans, or one in every 10, at a cost of more than $22 billion to the treasury -- nearly twice what was spent in 1987.

HUD is now spending almost as much to renew low-income rental subsidies awarded in the Carter Administration, amounting to between $7.3 billion and $8.1 billion a year as it does to provide low-cost housing for people now entering the program.

While liberal critics concede that in most cases Mr. Bush inherited thesocial problems of today, they accuse him of not having done enough to halt the slide. Conservatives, meanwhile, berate him for maintaining welfare handouts while ignoring private enterprise initiatives.

Welfare schemes often discourage personal initiative, they say. For example, welfare mothers receive allowances on condition that they do not work or marry working males -- "what I call the incentive system from hell," says Heritage Foundation welfare analyst Robert Rector.

"Poverty has never been an issue of particular importance to the Bush administration," says Robert Greenstein, head of the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Despite the enthusiastic and vocal activism for anti-poverty initiatives by HUD secretary Jack Kemp, Mr. Greenstein says it was not until the outbreak of rioting in South Central Los Angeles this spring that Mr. Bush paid much attention to urban poverty, or to the entreaties of his housing secretary.

When he did, it was Mr. Kemp's ideological preference for free enterprise, boot-straps empowerment and supply-side economics that tilted the administration's $1.3 billion aid program to rely heavily on the creation of urban enterprise zones -- economic development areas with tax incentives designed to lure business back to the impoverished city centers.

A senior treasury official estimates that the program would cost about $2.5 billion over the next five years.

Another centerpiece of the Bush/Kemp social development policy is an ambitious and costly program to encourage home ownership for the poor, known by its acronym HOPE.

But the program has barely got off the ground, largely because many in Congress regard it as too expensive and narrowly focused to achieve much.

Congress has consistently --ed Mr. Kemp's hopes for HOPE; it pared down last year's $1 billion budget request to $361 million. It favored instead another program called HOME, which provides grants to states and local governments to operate rental and home-ownership plans geared to their specific local circumstances.

Congress approved $1.5 billion for HOME in 1992 -- more than four times the HOPE budget. Mr. Kemp wishes the funding could switched and has waged an incessant battle with Congress over the issue.

The antagonism between the executive and the legislature over the last few years, analysts say, is a major reason for the government's inability to get a grip on the persistent problem of poverty.

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