THE CONGRESS just past was a good one for the poor, but not all the poor. The working poor with children were the principal beneficiaries. The earned-income tax credit that serves as a wage supplement for such households was increased atop an increase in the minimum wage. Medicaid will be expanded to cover all poor children by about the turn of the century (only about half are covered now), and a new tax credit was voted to help those working parents who make too much for Medicaid buy private health insurance. A system of child care grants to the states was also created, alongside an expansion of Head Start.
It was hardly an error of policy to put this emphasis on children. No age group has a higher poverty rate, is more vulnerable or is more important to invest in. But a gap was left -- not all the poor are or have young children -- and it is likely to grow if recession sets in. A useful way to help meet remaining need might be to liberalize the food stamp program.
The stamps program was cut in the early Reagan years; it has since been brought much of the way back. A further expansion or restoration was proposed as part of the farm bill (the program is administered by the Agriculture Department), but the idea was finally dropped for a combination of fiscal and political reasons. It would eventually have cost more than $1 billion a year, which the agriculture committees could only have raised by making even deeper cuts in farm programs than the large ones to which they were already committed. The votes weren't there.
But a liberalized stamps program would be an efficient way both to aid the poor and to combat recession. The mechanism is established and extensive. Third in size among federal welfare programs after only Medicaid and housing assistance, the program now reaches 20 million Americans a month -- more than one in 13 -- at a cost of about $15 billion a year. It is also the purest of the welfare programs -- all you need to be is poor, not old or disabled or a child in a broken home -- and it already expands in a recession as more people become eligible; the idea would be simply to make it more expansive.
Unemployment insurance and aid to families with dependent children also catch the victims of recession, but patchily; they vary not just by state but by such factors as work-force attachment and family structure. Food stamps are by contrast a national program. The increased aid would flow smoothly, nor would it fail to flow until after the recession, as happens with public works programs.
The discarded provisions remain a sensible way of broadening the program. The most important would increase allowances for high housing costs and inflation. Under the new budget rules, the increase would have to be redistributional rather than stimulative in the sense of adding to the deficit. The money would have to be found somewhere, through either a tax increase or an offsetting spending cut. But that should be possible. It's a step that the president would do well to propose and that the next Congress should take in any case.