Stand By for Rising Hunger

January 15, 1995|By SARA ENGRAM

In the rush to overturn the welfare state, it's not at all clear that the changes ahead will be ones the states can live with easily.

Exhibit A: the food and nutrition programs that have reduced hunger and malnutrition dramatically in this country. One suggestion has been to lump these programs together in block grants with welfare programs that are far less popular and effective -- not a good idea for anyone interested in sustaining the progress this country has made against hunger.

Another idea is to do away altogether with the entitlements associated with the welfare state. That notion needs a closer look as well, especially where food programs are concerned.

Democrats and Republicans alike have it in for the widely reviled Aid to Families with Dependent Children program that provides cash benefits to poor families. Even Donna Shalala, Health and Human Services secretary and former board chairman for the Children's Defense Fund, admitted this past week that under President Clinton's welfare-reform proposals states could, under some circumstances, place poor children in orphanages or their equivalent.

But it's a lot more attractive to denounce welfare payments than to call for abolishing subsidized meals for school children, food supplements for pregnant mothers and young children or even food stamps. Unlike direct cash payments, these programs cannot be as easily blamed for creating the ills that plague a government-dependent underclass.

The giant social-services block-grant idea may be losing steam already, but if Republicans really want to hold to their 100-day goal, there will be pressure to mark up bills quickly. In that case, block grants will be a tempting tactic. Congress can simply set a funding limit and let the states work out the details.

If so, the reforms now being shaped could erase a couple of decades of progress against malnutrition in this country. The much-criticized War on Poverty may have had its share of failures. But nutrition programs were not among them.

Dollar for dollar, programs like WIC (a supplemental food program for pregnant women, infants and children) save far more than they cost. For one thing, by helping pregnant women eat properly, the government helps to ensure that their babies don't end up in neo-natal intensive-care units because they were born prematurely.

Food programs are generally targeted accurately -- 92 percent of this aid goes to people below the poverty line. Nutrition programs feed people who otherwise would go hungry, and it's hard to argue that government has no interest in something so basic to the health of its citizens. Even the complaints that parents, not schools, should ensure that children get breakfast can be dismissed more easily than arguments in favor of group homes for impoverished children.

Any decent educator knows that teaching a hungry 6-year-old is an impossible task. And even the toughest critic of welfare would, we hope, agree that it's self-defeating to hold a hungry child responsible for a parent's failings.

In some cases, those parents may well be too disorganized or incompetent to provide for their children. In other cases, they may be ready and willing to work but unable to find a job. Whatever the reason, does it serve the country well to deprive a child of meals that sometimes are the only ones they can count on?

The Tufts University Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy estimates that some 30 million Americans cannot afford to buy enough food to maintain good health, and that 12 million U.S. children are hungry. That may sound like a lot, but the $28.5 billion dollars the federal government spends on food and nutrition assistance helps to keep that number much lower than it otherwise would be. The Tufts program estimates that another $10 billion -- less than 1 percent of the federal budget -- would quickly eliminate widespread hunger in the United States.

Like welfare payments, food stamps are now considered an entitlement. But in terms of their size and effect on federal spending, they hardly deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as the big boys on the block, such as Medicare or Social Security.

And although ''entitlement'' may be a dirty word in Washington, it's certainly not in the states. During recessions like the one we've just passed through, it's these federal ''entitlements'' that help states cope with the misery. The aid helps families, and it also helps boost the state's economy when it needs it most.

Yes, ''welfare'' needs reform. But let's not confuse AFDC with WIC or other programs that give taxpayers ample return on their investment.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each week.

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