While poor Americans are holding their breath in anticipation of deep cuts into welfare and other benefits by the Reagan administration, the signs from the administration so far seem to indicate that although many will be hit with catastrophic effect, the majority of the poor -- perhaps five out of six -- will be treated in much the same way as they have been for the last five years.
That treatment has been harsh. Some experts contend that the government begun to turn its back on the poor in the 1970s, if not through specific policies then by failing to take positive steps.
Take the District of Columbia for example: while living costs have risen 50 percent since 1975, those receiving the maximum Aid to Families with Dependent Children (the basic welfare payment) have gotten an increase of just 17 percent, or $43, rising to $286 from the $243 they received in 1975.
The proportionate increase in Maryland was better, with the maximum payment rising $70, or 35 percent, from $200 to $270.
In Virginia, the increase was $20, or 7.4 percent, from $268 to $288.
"I don't see a sharp drop coming for poor people," said Bob Cheeks, head of the Baltimore Welfare Rights Organization, "because they don't have that far to go. I think Reagan is going to be worse than Carter, but Carter, to me, made a lot of promises to poor and blacks and didn't live up to any. . . There were lot of symbols, but little was done. Carter was not a friend of the poor."
"In the past," said Janice Outtz of the Greater Washington Research Center, "the poor have been cut back anyway, not as a matter of policy, but because so much money was being pumped into stopping abuses of the program rather than into making the program work. . . I don't think Carter was any better for the poor than Reagan."
"Carter's lack of any action didn't help the poor," Outtz continued, "but Reagan's action certainly won't help either and it probably will hurt, it probably will hurt a lot more people."
Reagan administration statistics, however, indicate that other than those families on AFDC benefits who would be removed from the welfare rolls -- allegedly because they are not "truly needy" -- or have their benefits cut back, a full 80 percent will remain unaffected, no better and no worse off than they are today.
Nationwide, according to these figures, 16,000 families would gain some financial benefit under the proposed plan; 259,000 families would suffer reduced benefits and 401,000 families would become ineligible for AFDC.
In the District of Columbia, the administration's figures show no gainers; 2,529 families reduced in their benefits and 3,311 being found ineligible.
In Maryland, 518 families would benefit; 3,793 would lose and 10,853 would be pushed off the rolls.
In Virginia, 418 would gain; 4,469 would undergo a reduction and 8,227 would be found ineligible.
But Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based organization that acts as an advocate for poor children and their parents, challenged those figures. "None of us really knows what to expect," said Edelman. "They talk in generalities. It's a terrifically competent political hustle -- giving the public the notion of specifics, but withholding details from Congress until the last minute."
Paul Smith, a statistician on Edelman's staff, took exception to the administration figures and referred to written testimony presented to a House subcommittee on Wednesday by Health and Human Services Secretary Richard S. Schweiker. "Our proposal is to allow states to reduce the amount of AFDC paid for food and shelter to the extent that it duplicates . . . other programs," Schweiker's submission stated.
The catch it that, according to Smith, is that the states could interpret the plan as allowing major cuts in AFDC payments, because a large portion of those benefits normally is targeted for food -- an item that is also provided by food stamps.
According to Smith, almost all AFDC recipients in the District, for example, also receive food stamps. A full 57 percent of the average AFDC payment to a family of four -- $143.09 a month -- is tagged for food and if the amount matched by food stamps were eliminated, Smith said, the payment would be cut by $70 a month. The cut could be about the same in Maryland. In Virginia, the loss could be anywhere between $70 and $100 a month, he said.
"Since 90 percent of all AFDC recipients nationwide also receive food stamps," Smith said, "the assumption is that 90 percent of all recipients will be hit by the cuts. If that's not the case, then we don't know the specifics."
Jeff Kirsch of the Food Research and Action Center said that in the past, food stamps, which comprise a nationally uniform program rather than being determined by individual states, have been used to "fill in the gaps" when basic welfare payments have been eroded by inflation or cut back.
But, Kirsch said, he was concerned that Reagan administration plans to eliminate food stamps for families headed by a working mother would be a heavy blow. In a typical household of three headed by a mother earning $4.50 an hour on a fulltime job, food stamps now amount to $95 a month.
The administration has indicated that this reduction would be compensated by a tax cut," Kirsch said, "but that compensation would give a family $58 to offset a $95 loss."