There are three separate questions regarding the Reagan adminisration and poor people. The first, which has been the subject of much commentary, is whether particular programs ostensibly enacted to help the poor do in fact help them. The second, still being debated, is whether America, given the state of its economy, can afford to do as much for the poor as it undertook to do during the Great Society years.
The third question, largely obscured by the first two, though of profoundly greater significance, is whether the national government ought even be in the business of trying to help the poor.
If the debate over "workfare" versus welfare characterizes the first question and the proposed reductions in food stamps and similar assistance the second, the third question is posed most bluntly in the administration's proposal to demolish the Community Services Administration, turning the money -- and responsibility -- for anti-poverty programs over to the states and municipalities in the form of block grants.
CSA -- the already diminished successor to Lyndon Johnson's Office of Economic Opportunity -- is more than a series of federally financed programs: legal assistance, day care, job training and so on. It is the embodiment of the federal government's committment to poor people. It is the only formal advocate, at the federal level, for people in poverty.
Even if all the money administered by CSA were transferred to the states, it would mark an end to that committment and that advocacy. But the current proposal is to reduce the money earmarked for CSA programs by 25 percent and then turn the money over to the states, via block grants.
"If they go through with it -- if they dissolve CSA and the money goes to the states -- I don't think poor people will fare too well," Bob Elias said the other day, drastically understating his fears.
Elias, director of government and industrial relations for Action for Boston Community Development, Inc., Boston's umbrella anti-poverty agency, was in town to talk to congressional aides about the future of programs of the sort run by ABCD. ("I wasn't lobbying," he said. "We're not allowed to lobby; I was just trying to find out what is likely to happen.")
He thinks he knows what will happen if the administration proposal goes through. "The block grant money would be mixed up with other money in the states, and then the local constituencies would have to fight over it."
Nor does he doubt the outcome of such a fight. Pit the powerless poor against more influential constituencies -- the police and fire departments, for instance -- and the poor are virtually certain to lose.
"I'm not saying CSA is infallible. It clearly is not. I'm not even saying don't cut the anti-poverty funds. If the federal budget has to be cut, we can take our share of the cuts. All I'm saying is that we need to save CSA as an indication of continuing federal concern for the poor. This is the only government agency whose only concern is poor people.
"To eliminate it is to deny the country's commitment, its basic way of thinking and feeling about the poor. It is like taking away a ladder that has been constructed piece by piece over the last 50 years that offers a way up and out of the quicksand of poverty."
Now instead of a ladder, Reagan offers a "safety net," Elias said. He quoted his executive director, Robert M. Coard, in an article he wrote for a Boston newspaper: "Doesn't he know that the main purpose of a net is to catch something and keep it there, not to let it move? Surely that is what will happen to the person whose job training is cut off, whose day-care program closes down, whose right to food stamps is rescinded, who has no recourse to legal services. That person, forced to sign up for welfare just to survive, will belong to that newest new breed -- 'the truly needy.'"
The proposal to shut down CSA doesn't even pass the test of fiscal pragmatism. At least some of the money earmarked for the poor would be eaten up by the necessity of creating new state and local bureaucracies, leaving the poor even worse off. As Elias noted, even the conservative Heritage Foundation, on whose work the Reagan administration has drawn for many of its fiscal ideas, has recommended extending CSA for at least two years.
Some of us find heartless the present administration's notion that poor people should be left to lift themselves by their own bootstraps. It is nothing short of unconscionable to propose now to take away their boots.