Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The 'Undeserving Poor' Deserve More Help

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The 'Undeserving Poor' Deserve More Help

Article excerpt

With his proposal to boost the role of religious groups in providing taxpayer-funded social services, President Bush is pushing a sharp change in social policy.

But, as the nation reconsiders who delivers social services, shouldn't we also look again at who gets government assistance?

These two questions are connected. Historically, religious and community groups have helped anyone who came to them in need regardless of family circumstances, age, or medical status.

In contrast, government decisionmakers in Washington and state capitals with command of much greater resources typically divide America's poor into two groups: those who "deserve" help and get it, and those who don't.

Current policies direct most government assistance to families with children, senior citizens, and persons with disabilities. Effectively ignored are the needs of nearly 5 million Americans - known in legislative jargon as "able-bodied adults without dependents" - who live in poverty or within its reach.

Healthy adults of working age with no dependents largely lost their food-stamp benefits in the reforms of the mid-1990s. State and local cash assistance to this group has also fallen, reflecting the belief that all but the elderly and disabled can and should take care of themselves.

A recent study by the Urban Institute shows most of these "undeserving poor" to be working but simply not making it. Nearly 80 percent hold jobs, many of them full time, yet most earn less than $20,000 a year. When not working, most are looking for jobs, going to school, or caring for a family member.

Despite their hard work, over half have no health insurance and a third worry at times about being able to afford food. Almost none receive government support. Education levels are low and family life limited: All live without children, and two-thirds have no spouse or partner at home.

A central tenet of Mr. Bush's conservative-but-compassionate social agenda is to offer the needy a hand up, rather than a handout. In keeping with this approach, policymakers should expand income-assistance strategies for adults without dependents to help more of these workers enter the economic mainstream. …

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