Reagan's blueprint for war on poverty as viewed from the 'trenches'
Every new victory in the so-called "Reagan revolution" brings more cheers from Americans who want taxes and big government slashed. It also brings more knitted brows among those who have been longtime soldiers in the war against poverty.
Dorothy Nixon Allen used to work as a maid, trying to support her three children on a tiny income. She qualified for welfare, she says, but she didn't believe in taking handouts.
Then came the war on poverty, which President Lyndon B. Johnson declared with great flourish in 1964. He pledged to send the might and money of the federal government into that battel. Dorothy Allen signed up, first as a volunteer at the nonprofit Wake County, N.C., Community Action Program (CAP), a local agency for the antipoverty effort.
Now she is director of the agency, which this year will receive $1.25 million in federal grants. The Wake County CAP uses the funds for projects ranging from Headstart to weatherizing homes and job counseling. Every day it feeds 500 to 600 elderly.
Ms. Allen says those projects are vital to the poor in Wake County, which includes the city of Raleigh. "There are many who were on walfare and now have finished college and have helped to take their families off welfare," she says. "Some have their own businesses. Their children and even their grandchildren would not dare get on welfare."
She adds, "This program has instilled a lot of pride and dignity to poor white people and black people."
With each Reagan success in Washington, however, she becomes more concerned about the future. Already Reagan's budget knife has cut into her staff. She has had to reduce the number of "outreach" workers, who go into the poorer neighborhoods to find out what services are needed. She must rely more on volunteers and must prepare for next year, when federal spending for such social projects will rop 25 percent.
Even more worrisome to her is the Reagan plan, approved by an agreement on Capitol Hill, to give grants to states instead of to antipoverty agencies. That means that agencies like hers will get "whatever the county and state see fit," she says. And they could see fit to give little or no funds to existing groups.
Virginia businessman and avowed "capitalist" Cabell Brand, a 16-year veteral of the war on poverty, also worries that the Reagan floodtide will sink efforts to aid the poor.
Historically, local and state governments have not been concerned about minorities, poor people, and black people," he says. If states are given total control of funds, "poor people will not get their share. And they need morem than their share."
Mr. Brand helped found Total Action Against Poverty in the Roanoke Valley, one of the first community action programs in the antipoverty war. He has been a volunteer and strong supporter ever since. After 16 years, he says, three or four of the local governments in the Roanoke Valley still "don't care whether we live or die" and would prefer to have no antipoverty programs on the theory that if they have no services, poor people will go elsewhere.
State and local governments resisted civil rights, he reasons, and many will be unfriendly to the antipoverty services Mr. Reagan wants to turn over to them.
The "poor lobby" has won a few concessions on Capitol Hill even amid the Reagan conquest. A total of $390 million will be earmarked for projects for low-income communities, even though the Reagan administration wanted to give the money to the states with no strings attached.
But recently the President promised state legislators in Atlanta that he would push hard to give states more control next year.
"I don't see any letup by this adminsitration," says David Bradley, executive director of the National Community Action Foundation, a coalition to save local antipoverty agencies formed just after the November election. Mr. Bradley adds that anyone outside the upper income brackets will be "steamrolled" under the Reagan administration.
In an interview, a Reagan administration official summed up the fears of antipoverty workers as a natural reaction to change. "Any major change has dislocation problems and painful adjustments and apprehension," said Dwight A. Ink, director of the Community Services Agency (CSA), a federal antipoverty unit that he has been ordered to dismantle by Sept. 30.
"They know where things are now, but they don't know where things will be down the road," he said of the antipoverty groups, which now get 20 percent of their funding through CSA. The federal government has as many defects and problems as local governments, he maintained, and it is time to give states back the responsibility for social services.
Meanwhile, some antipoverty groups are taking steps to survive the Reagan revolution. At a community action program in St. Louis, general manager Harold Antoine is making a list of priority projects. Employment and housing will be on top, adult education programs will be cut back, as will a program to plant vegetable gardens in vacant city lots and a drug and alcohol abuse center.
In Virginia, Cabell Brand is taking his case to private groups and hopes to replace some federal money with private donations. And he is also keeping channels open to the Virginia government, which will be holding the purse strings in the future.
Says National community Action Foundation head Bradley, "Tough times are ahead, but it's going to b e interesting."