John Block was doing what a loyal secretary of agriculture should -- defending President Reagan's proposed $2 billion cut in the food stamp program.
"I think the president's package in the food stamp plan is going to serve the truly needy. And when it does, it won't be serving some of those who aren't as needy," he said.
There it was, that central tenet of the Reagan team's faith: Social welfare programs should serve only "the truly needy."
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) sings in the same choir. He is presiding over hearings on the new farm bill, which includes the Reagan revisions in the food stamp program.
"It is a demonstrable fact that there are countless thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people who really ought not to be receiving food stamps at the expense of their fellow taxpayers," Helms said.
His solution: "We're going to limit the program to the truly needy."
Is Brad Hawkins truly needy or should he stop buying so much hamburger for his family with his food stamps?
Is Gloria Russ truly needy or should she drop out of junior college and get a full-time job?
These aren't Washington questions. But they are the real-life human dilemmas encountered when you go beyond the Beltway and meet some of the people who depend on food stamps.
In Washington, what you get instead is an avalanche of abstract statistics on the food stamp program. Facts and figures like these:
The cost of the program has doubled in three years. Before the Reagan cuts, the food stamp budget was projected at $12.5 billion for fiscal year 1982. Twenty million Americans use food stamps. Almost 60 percent of them are white and about 40 percent also receive welfare. The average income for families on food stamps is $325 a month. Ninety percent of all those using food stamps have monthly incomes of less tha $700.
Regurgitating such numbers is the Washington way of debating the merits of social programs. But the current fight over food stamps involves more than cold calculations and vague rhetoric about the "truly needy."
Hagerstown, a played-out-industrial city of 36,000 just 70 miles northwest of the White House, is hurting. Mack Truck, Washington County's largest employer, has laid off more than 1,000 people in the last year. The jobless rate in this narrow strip of western Maryland, scrunched between Pennsylvania and West Virginia, is more than 12 percent.
The local food stamp program is housed in the Washington County welfare center, a two-story yellow brick building halfway up a small hill in downtown Hagerstown. At the top of the hill is Prospect Street, where the grand old houses that locals once called Prosperity Row now have been turned into apartments and rooming houses.
These days, the 12 women who make up the local food stamp bureaucracy are under a state of seige. In February they mailed out $246,000 worth of food stamps. About 18 months ago, the monthly was $117,000. Like the rest of Washington County, almost all the 2,100 households receiving food stamps are white. But the Hagerstown area is beset by the same problems that afflict the food stamp program nationally.
Twenty to thirty new applicants for food stamps trickle into the welfare center each working day. The seven caseworkers are unable to keep up with the flow of new business. Agriculture Department regulations state clearly that if you qualify for food stamps, you must receive them within 30 days. But half the people who applied for food stamps in Washington County at the end of February were not given appointments to see caseworkers until early April.
Brad Hawkins, a burly 34-year-old Hagerstown man who hasn't worked since October, is part of the caseload at the welfare center. He and his wife have been depending on food stamps to supplement their meager income since the program came to Washington County in 1970. It's hard to raise five young children when, like Brad Hawkins, you only earned $2,800 in 1980.
Told about the Hawkins family, Agriculture Secretary John Block says he has a "great deal of sympathy" for them. But because four of the chilren receive a free lunch at school, the Reagan administration wants to reduce the family's food stamp benefits by about $40 a month to eliminate this "duplication."
If you are sitting in Washington, it all seems a very logical way to save $588 million in fiscal year 1982. Food stamp benefits are pegged to something the Agriculture Department calls the Thrifty Food Plan, the cheapest nutritionally adequate diet ever devised with the aid of a computer.
Unfortunately, Brad Hawkins, like most food stamp recipients, has never heard of this wonderful diet. If he had asked his caseworker about the Thrifty Food Plan, he would have been directed to the Hagerstown public library to look up a copy.
But that didn't stop the Reagan administration from assuming that the family was dutifully following the plan. They calculate that the Hawkins children are eating four meals a day -- three at home and one in school.
Block tried to explain how this cutback would affect the Hawkins family: "I don't know the details, but with a little adjustment in how they handle it, they're going to get an adequate amount of food. It may not work out as good as it did before, even though before it was inadequate. It's going to be more inadequate now, but yet it still can be worked out."
Life looks a bit different when you are sitting on the shabby furniture in the living room of the Hawkins' $197-a-month apartment in public housing.
The tattoo on Brad Hawkins' right arm bears the name of his wife Teresa, but it could also say, "Life is tough." Hawkins, who dropped out of school in the ninth grade, has never earned more than $5,000 in any one year.
You can set a calendar by the contents of the Hawkins' refrigerator. Early in the month, when they receive their $252 in food stamps, the freezer is filled with carefully wrapped packages of ham, hamburger, round steak and chicken. A typical meal for the family of seven consists of two packages of spaghetti, two jars of prepared sauce and a pound of hamburger.
The family buys in bulk and Hawkins can quote the price of everything from a can of corn to a gallon of milk. "Although we scrounge, there's always a week at the end of the month when we're struggling," Hawkins said. "That's when we run out of sugar, flour, salt, pepper, bread and milk. We try to borrow enough off someone to buy a couple of meals."
Although troubled with chronic bronchitis, Hawkins wants to work. "Give me a job, I'll work. I'll shine shoes; I'll wash cars."
The food stamp law requires Hawkins to register for work with the local office of the Labor Department. But in a city with high unemployment this work requirement is often a meaningless bureaucratic exercise, not a realistic way to find a job.
Hawkins has worked for most of his life. He drove a Hagerstown cab for seven years, often working 70 hours a week. He quit the job early last year when they tried to put him on the evening shift.
Then there was a minimum-wage job with a local laundry. Hawkins said he lost it last October when he refused to drive a delivery truck while taking his bronchitis medicine. "They thought I was lazy and didn't want to work, but I was afraid of having a wreck while I was on the medicine," he said.
Hawkins is now receiving $75 a week from unemployment, which is supplemented by food stamps and $134.59 a month in welfare benefits. One reason Hawkins can't find a job is because he has a prison record.
"As a kid, I was wild," he explained. Never any violent crime, he stressed, breaking and entering was his most serious offense. He married Teresa in 1969 and shortly after that he was in the Maryland Correctional Institute. "It really gets to you when your first child is born when you're in a place like that," he said.
Hawkins is proud that he has had a clean record for more than a decade: "Ever since I've had these kids, I've calmed down. I wouldn't even steal a piece of bubble gum now."
Their three boys and two girls are the center of Brad and Teresa's lives. For a while the family took care of the baby of one of Teresa's friends in exchange for $15 a week. "The welfare people said I should have declared it as income," Hawkins said. "That would be a good job, raising kids."
Pointing to his own five children, he said, "I hope they grow up to be something." Teresa, who leaves most of the talking to her husband, said quietly, "Not like us."
Now that the debate has quieted over welfare chiselers, food stamps arouse the most visceral emotions about social programs.
Liberals cannot discuss the program for more than five minutes without raising the specter of mass starvation.
Fred Richmond (D-N.Y.), the chairman of a House agriculture subcommittee which recently held food stamp hearings, responded to Reagan's proposed cuts this way: "You can't pare 15 percent out of children's stomachs."
Earlier, over a lunch of shrimp in the House dining room, Ricmond claimed that anyone who follows the Thrifty Food Plan "is now in a cemetery."
Conservatives counter with an arsenal of horror stories from the grocery line. Treasury Secretary Donald Regan rails against college students who he says are buying "beer and liquor" with their food stamps. A conservation with Jesse Helms yielded tales of Californians who are using the stamps to buy Perrier. George Dunlop, the staff director of Helms' committee, talked about the Boston seafood market that advertised fresh lobster with the slogan "we accept food stamps." Stores are allowed to accept food stamps for Perrier and lobster, but not for beer and liquor.
All these conservative charges boil down to a single image of the undeserving: a well-dressed lady stepping out of a Cadillac to buy sirloin with her food stamps.
The lady stepping out of a Cadillac lives in Hagerstown and her name is Gloria Russ. Russ, a poised and articulate 27-year-old with two school-aged children, is an emblem of everything conservatives say is wrong with the food stamp program.
To begin with, Russ is a full-time student at Hagerstown Junior College.
Two years ago, 200,000 college students used food stamps. This enraged congressional conservatives who changed the law. Today, Russ is part of a dwindling band of 50,000 college students who are left in the program.
But it wasn't Gloria Russ' junior college courses that prompted the secretary of agriculture to say, when told about her: "I compliment her on her strength. I think she's a strong person. But I don't think she should be taking food stamps."
What upset Block was that Russ occasionally buys steak or crab meat with her $50 a month in food stamps and has gotten a ride to the supermarket in a Cadillac owned by her boy friend, who lives in Baltimore.
Gloria Russ began giggling over the difference between the image she conveys and reality.
"It's almost as if people look at you strangely based on how you're dressed," she said. "I have a leather coat. I get the feeling that the cashier in the supermarket is saying: 'How can she afford to look or dress like that and still be on food stamps?' Sometimes I wish I could tell the cashier exactly what's going on. I wish I could tell my life story to her."
Russ grew up in Hagerstown with an aunt who gave her a hatred of welfare.
"That's one route I was taught to avoid," she said. "Welfare infringes on so many of your rights. I've always been taught that there must be another way than going to the welfare office."
Until 1978, Russ was earning $7,500 a year as a clerk-typist for the W. R. Grace Company in Baltimore. It was enough to buy the leather coat, but she realized, "If I didn't stop and get some education, I'd never go anywhere."
She returned home to Hagerstown, found some work, but it wasn't until January last year that she got up the courage to enroll in junior college. That was when she made her pilgrimage to the welfare center to get food stamps.
These days, she works 20 hours a week as a secretary at the junior college and takes home about $270 a month. She also receives $25 a week for support for her two children, Corey, 8, and Jean, 7, from their father.
This January Russ tried to do without food stamps. But then the child support payments were late. She reluctantly made an appointment to reapply for food stamps in February. "I had decided a thousand times that I would call welfare and call it off," she said. "I didn't want to go through all their sarcastic statements."
In the end, Russ' visit to the food stamp office was painless. She and Chris Long, her 28-year-old caseworker, sat across a table from each other in a tiny, windowless cubic decorated only by a calendar from a local funeral home.
Long asked the required questions: "Does anybody else live in your home except for you and your two children?" Russ gave the required answer: "No." In 15 minutes, it was all over. Russ got her food stamps.
She vows to go off food stamps for good when she receives her degree in secretarial science from the junior college this August. She may have little choice. Because her two children are eligible for the free school lunch, the Reagan proposals would cut her benefits by 40 percent.
For Russ, food stamps are an income supplement for her and her children. "They help me do tiny things for them that I couldn't possibly do. A movie or an evening out at McDonald's is a special treat for them. It helps me find money to pay their Brownie and Boy Scout dues," she said.
The fragile congressional coalition that supports continuation
The fragile congressional coalition that supports continuation of the food stamps program might disintegrate entirely if the legislators thought that the money was going for Brownie dues.
But it may be short-sighted to say Russ is not "truly needy" and cast her family into the outer darkness of the "underserving poor." In 1982 and 1983, Russ may well pay more in taxes because of her junior college degree than she ever received in food stamps.
Russ contrasts herself with a woman friend on welfare "who does nothing but sit at home all day. Here I am a person who's making an effort, and I get criticized for being on food stamps."
Chris Long, 28, the senior food stamp caseworker, was telling her favorite stories about absurb food stamp regulations. "Did you know that you can get food stamps if you live in your car?" she asked. "But only if you park it in the same place every night. We consider that a fixed address. If you move your car from place to place, you don't qualify."
Long, who has worked in the food stamp office for six years, has a reservoir of sympathy for most applicants. "I don't know how a lot of these people make it," she said. "You feel sorry for them and can't see any way of them getting out of the hole."
But some of the regulations seem capricious to her. Like the one that says people who are living in boarding houses and receiving all their meals there can still qualify for food stamps. "We have a woman like that who was getting $20 a month in food stamps," Long said. "She was using them to buy Hostess Twinkies."
(The Reagan administration agrees. This is one of the things they want to change in the new food stamp law.)
It was early afternoon and Calvin Sanders, 66, a retired janitor, was watching television in his $32-a-month efficiency apartment in a senior citizens' apartment house run by the Hagerstown Housing Authority.
The bed was unmade and there was a box of 'Nilla Wafers on the counter. Sanders, who lives along, gets $40 in food stamps every month and $239.40 from Social Security. Every day Sanders gets a hot meal and a cold meal at Alexander House for $2, although he says, "Some of those sandwiches are for the birds." He uses his food stamps to buy bread, milk, cereal, bananas, coffee -- and 'Nilla Wafers.
Sanders said he applied for food stamps "because they were available . . . Perhaps there are people in this building who need them more than I do."
None of the Reagan budget cuts would affect Sanders' food stamps. The cynical might say that is because the elderly vote and the long-term poor, people like Brad Hawkins, don't.
When he was told about Sanders, Agriculture Secretary Block said, "Really, he shouldn't have food stamps. I wish we could give his money to that other poor man [Brad hawkins]."
But after less than two months in office, Block has accepted the realities of life in Washington. "I guess we can't deal with everything," he said. "The programs are imperfect. We know they are. He [Sanders] probably shouldn't get food stamps, but he's going to get them. He probably shouldn't, but that's the way it happens to be."
Even with the food stamp program there are hungry people in Hagerstown. On Tuesday and Friday afternoons, you can watch 20 or 30 of them shuffle down the basement steps of St. Mark's Lutheran Church to receive a free bag of groceries from the oldest and largest of the six food banks in Washington County.
They are mostly young men and women, some carrying babies and many dressed in jeans and Army fatigue jackets. A number of them have applied for food stamps and are waiting to see a caseworker.
Although the food bank in Hagerstown was established in 1972, it is a throwback to the kind of local charity that existed before there were federal programs like food stamps. The money to run the food bank in Hagerstown -- about $1,500 a month -- comes in small donations, and most of the volunteers who run it are members of St. Mark's Church.
It is easy to romanticize this kind of small-town charity and to look at it as a nonbureaucratic alternative to food stamps. Jesse Helms talks like this at times. "If the churches would spend a little less time on political and social issues and roll up their sleeves for their fellow man," he said, "then there wouldn't be such an exceptional need for the government to step in."
But the offerings of the food bank in Hagerstown are limited, the restrictions onerous and the approach can be patronizing.
A sign for volunteers behind the counter reads, "Please try to give dented cans out first." Everyone who comes to the food bank is offered either a package of hot dogs or hamburger, one egg for every family mamber and a selection of canned goods. The food, worth about $10, is supposed to last a family for three days.
Despite its informal structure, the food bank has a strict set of rules. Everyone must present a referral from either the Red Cross, the Salvation Army or the Community Action Council, and individuals are limited to three visits to the food bank per year -- the volunteers keep detailed records.
"We're for emergencies only," said Lou Sloan, one of the food bank's dedicated women volunteers. "We're not for food stamps. If someone uses food stamps foolishly, we're not supposed to reimburse them."
Sometimes the cultural gap between the church volunteers at the food bank and the clientele reaches alarming proportions.
'Who's been drinking? I can smell it." The speaker was Ethel Fauver, a spry 87-year-old woman who had volunteered to work behind the counter.
Facing her was Willie Johnson, 36, a husky black man who had lost his job driving a truck for a local rescue mission. His companion, Clara Kegler, who did smell of alcohol, was leaning against the wall of the church basement.
Fauver pointed a finger at her: "Don't you come in here drinking anymore. This is a church." Johnson and Kegler just stared straight ahead as Fauver and Sloan filled a bag with groceries. As they left, Sloan was calling the Community Action Council, which arranged the referral, to complain about the incident.
The first four compartments in the cash registers at the Blue Ox supermarket in Hagerstown are for $1, $5, $10 and $20 bills. The fifth compartment, the one at the far right, is for brown, blue and green food stamps. Thirty percent of the income of this locally owned market comes from food stamps, as much as $1,000 worth on a single Saturday.
Ken Snodderly, the store manager, calls food stamps "the best kind of cash there is right now. I'd rather take food stamps from a poor person than a bad check from a rich person."
Food stamps are treated the same as greenbacks when the Blue Ox deposits them at the Hagerstown Trust Company. Only after the food stamps get to the Federal Reserve branch bank in Baltimore are they redeemed out of the Agriculture Department's budget.
Food stamps began as a nutrition program in 1964. The outcry over hunger in America led to the program's expansion in the early 1970s. The crusade for adequate nutrition still dictates much of the shape of the proram. For example, food stamps can be used to buy groceries at the Blue Ox, but not cigarettes, toilet paper or fried chicken from the store's deli section.
Nevertheless, in recent years, the food stamp program has become the most liberal income supplement program run by the federal government.
Hank Preston doesn't look poor. In his late 20s, with a sandy mustache, he was sitting at the table in the kitchen of his two-story brick house on four acres on the outskirts of Hagerstown. In the driveway were a 1975 sedan and a '79 pickup. His wife was playing with their three small children in the living room.
"Definitely, at present, I'm truly needy," he said. "It's a hell of a category to put yourself into. You know and I know that my pickup truck and this home could be repossessed at any time. My income tax refunds will help us though March. After that, it will be an interesting set of circumstances."
Until September when he was laid off by Mack Truck, Hank Preston had a piece of the good life. He had worked there for seven years and was making more than $10 an hour. Even after the layoff, he was getting $256 a week in unemployment and sub-pay -- layoff benefits that are part of his union's contract with Mack Truck. But now that the unemployment and the subpay have ended, Preston says he is "caught between a rock and a hard spot."
On a Tuesday morning early this month, Preston went down to the welfare center to apply for food stamps. It wasn't an easy step for him to take and that's why, unlike everyone else in this article, he doesn't want his real name used.
"The lady [his caseworker] asked about my bank accounts. I said I got $6 in the checking account and $1.13 in the savings account but that doesn't include interest. She said to me, 'You mean you don't have any money?' I just started laughing. I said, 'Lady, I'm not laughing because it's funny; I'm laughing because I'm embarrassed.'"
Preston had no problem qualifying for $277 a month in food stamps. Under food stamp regulations, he was eligible for what the caseworker called "expedited service." That meant he got his stamps within 72 hours, instead of waiting five weeks for an appointment with a caseworker.
Hank Preston is far from destitute. After all, he has his $75,000 house and his two motor vehicles. But the food stamp program allows you to own your own home and up to $4,500 worth of motor vehicles. Preston could still have $1,500 in the bank and qualify for food stamps. This asset test for food stamps would be unchanged by the Reagan proposals.
Because he is high on the seniority list, Hank Preston could be back at Mack Truck in a few weeks. But he still believes he deserved food stamps. "In 1979, I paid $5,200 in income taxes, plus the maximum for Social Security," he said. "Now it comes my turn to draw for something, and I've got to fight for it."
Preston has tried to find a job. "Who's going to hire me?" he asked. "Look at the unemployment rate in Washington County." And, he said, employers know he'll go back to Mack Truck as soon as he can.
What about trying to borrow against the equity in his $75,000 home which he originally financed at 8-3/4 percent?
"Sure, I could take a second mortgage on this house," he said. "But with the current interest rates, I'd be in the hole for 30 years. Do you want me to liquidate? I'd have something then, but my wife and kids wouldn't have a home. And I couldn't afford to start over."
Back in Washington, I asked Agriculture Secretary John Block to define the "truly needy."
His answer will not win any awards for eloquence, but was an honest response from a cabinet secretary caught between a president who says cut the budget and more than 20 million Americans who depend on food stamps.
"It's impossible to just draw a line and say this or that, but you have to draw a line somewhere," Block said.
Even Block agrees that Brad Hawkins and his family are truly needy. But under the Reagan adminsitration's proposals Hawkins' food stamps will be reduced and Calvin Sanders will still be able to buy 'Nilla Wafers and Hank Preston won't have to go to the bank to talk about a second mortgage.
Gloria Russ and her children are a harder case. In the end, it is ironic that the lady in the Cadillac hates welfare dependency as much as Jesse Helms does. She reminds us that social policy is too important to be based on stories from the grocery line. CAPTION: Cover Photo, Brad and Teresa Hawkins and their five children; Picture 1, "I feel real bad about coming in here. I've always been able to make it on my own." That's what this 26-year-old Hagerstown man said as he sat down for his food stamp application interview with caseworker Chris Long; He didn't get the stamps. Picture 2, Gloria Russ, a junior-college student, depends on food stamps to feed her school-age children; Picture 3, Every day 20 to 30 people apply for food stamps at the welfare center in Hagerstown. Those without any income are judged emergency cases and can get their stamps within 72 hours. Others have had to wait as long as five weeks to see a caseworker. In the last 18 months the cost of the Washington County food stamp program has doubled; Picture 4, Housed in a church basement, the Hagerstown food bank is a throwback to old-time charity. The free food worth about $10, includes one egg for each family member and a package of hot dogs or hamburger. Photos by Bill Snead