Contrary to some of the wild charges you may have heard, this administration has not and will not turn its back on America's elderly or America's poor.
The State of the Union Message
Unfortunately, charges that the Reagan administration is turning its back on elderly and poor Americans, and most especially elderly poor Americans, are anything but wild. Such charges are, in my opinion, indisputable. The president's proposed FY 1983 food stamp cutbacks provide a case in point.
Currently, there are about 2.2 million food stamp households with elderly and disabled members. No one has suggested that these people have abused the program. It is widely accepted that only the truly needy among the elderly and disabled (who must also meet strict income and assets tests) actually participate.
Yet, according to preliminary Congressional Budget Office estimates, the Reagan budget proposals would reduce or terminate food stamp assistance for 92 percent of all households with elderly or disabled members. Over 26 percent of all elderly and disabled households would be dropped from the program altogether. About 25 percent of the food stamp dollars now paid to elderly and disabled participants would be taken away, with an average loss per household of $16 a month, or $192 a year.
Such proposals show a frightening lack of awareness of those who will be affected. They are not proposals to weed out so-called "high income" participants. They cut deeply across the board, reducing subsistence and, in some cases, less-than-subsistence benefits. Millions of elderly and disabled persons already living at or near the poverty level cannot afford a substantial reduction in their food budgets. The president doesn't seem to realize that a loss of $16 a month would mean that many elderly and disabled persons will run out of food before the end of each month. To an elderly widow, $16 represents one week's worth of food.
It's disturbing that the president would condone such sharp reductions for elderly and disabled persons. These are persons least likely to be able to augment their income from outside sources to make up for a loss in food stamp benefits. What is even more disturbing are increasing reports in the media about starvation and malnutrition among our senior citizens.
The administration would cut benefits in several ways. For starters, it would cut all food stamp recipients' benefits by an amount equal to 5 percent of their disposable incomes. An elderly couple whose sole income is Social Security payments of $425 a month (or less than 90 percent of the poverty line) would have their food stamp benefits cut 62 percent (from $312 to $120 a year). Another administration proposal--to eliminate the $10 minimum benefit that applies to most elderly and disabled households--would reduce this couple's food stamp benefits further, to $108 a year.
If, in addition, this couple were to receive any government aid to help with high fuel bills in the winter months, the budget proposals would cut their food stamps by up to 50 percent of the fuel assistance received. If this hypothetical couple received as little as $30 a month in fuel assistance, they would be eliminated from the food stamp program for those months.
For them, the "heat or eat" dilemma could be very real. In my home state of Vermont, where it is not unusual for winter fuel bills to run $300 to $400 a month, the president's proposal on fuel assistance could have a devastating effect.
Of course, it is not only the elderly and disabled who would be harshly affected by the president's food stamp proposals. Nearly all participants (about 85 percent) would be cut an average of $262 a year. Low-wage or part-time working households (headed mostly by females) with children would face more severe reductions than anyone else. The administration proposed elimination of the deduction nowallowed for work-related expenses. This would encourage people not to work and penalize those who do. Working households stand to lose about 40 percent of the food stamp benefits they now receive if the new Reagan proposals are enacted.
Last year, I supported a move by Congress to cut the food stamp program $2.3 billion, a reduction of about 20 percent. Eligibility was limited to persons who meet the administration's definition of "truly needy." It should come as no surprise that the additional $2.8 billion the president seeks to cut this year cannot be achieved without harsh effects on millions of poor people. His proposals have nothing to do with cutting fraud and abuse. They cut benefits.
I believe that if the American people were fully aware of the real-life effects of the president's budget proposals for social programs, they would oppose them overwhelmingly. The president's repeated references to abuse by a small minority of participants blurs the real issues. If the compassion of his program is measured by its direct effect on millions of needy human beings, it can indeed be charged that the president is turning his back on the poor and elderly in this country.