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The Poor Are Quite Invisible In Campaigns
Published on Thursday, October 26, 2000 in the Buffalo News
The Poor Are Quite Invisible In Campaigns
by Rod Watson
 
If all of the poor people in Western New York were rounded up and placed in their own election district, what are the chances that Rick Lazio or Hillary Rodham Clinton - or Al Gore or George W. Bush, for that matter - would ever stop there?

What are the odds that Lazio, who's practically taken up residence here, would open a campaign office there or that Clinton, famous for her all-ears tour, would set up a listening post?

You're right: not too good.

If there's any conspicuous trend this campaign season, it's the disappearance of the poor. They seem to have been rendered invisible by the 1996 welfare reform bill. The four-year-old law has become a kind of legislative elixir sprinkled along the campaign trail to make poor folks evaporate in a poof.

Listen to the campaign back-and-forth. About the only mention of the poor is when someone takes a bow for supporting the 1996 law and the fact that millions have disappeared from the rolls.

But if only they could sprinkle that campaign potion at the food pantry or the homeless shelter.

"We're seeing an increase of at least 10 percent a year," says Jan Robinson, talking about the Salvation Army's caseload since the welfare reform bill passed. "The numbers on the (welfare) rolls may be down, but that really doesn't reflect what's happening to the individuals."

Robinson, the charity's director of family resources, was among those on hand last week for the unveiling of the first part of a study that will try to document what's happening to those removed from the welfare rolls - something governments have studiously avoided doing.

The first part of the study, performed with the University at Buffalo, surveyed local charities. It concluded that as government help is reduced, more people are turning to charities, many of which have had to turn people away because they can't pick up all of the slack.

The next phase of the study, part of a nationwide effort initiated by the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, will look at the impact on individuals. But those who work with the poor here already know the impact.

"We're hearing things like, three days a week the parents don't eat so the children can," says Joan Malone, director of the local Coalition for Economic Justice.

In these supposedly good times, "we have thousands of people standing in line for food, and I'm not talking about Krispy Kreme, either," adds Bill O'Connell, executive director of the Erie County Commission on Homelessness.

There are no candidate photo-ops with these people. They don't merit a Kodak moment. In fact, they get little exposure at all.

Instead, there's a celebration of caseload reductions distorted by the fact that "success" stories often work only a few hours a week or a few weeks a year. Even with much-hyped minimum wage hikes, they never come close to getting out of poverty - the real measure of success.

These are the people taking $6.50-per-hour jobs while losing Medicaid or forfeiting food stamps in the maze set up to discourage them from even thinking about government as an ally.

Yet they're in no one's focus group.

"Poor people are not powerful" is how the Children's Defense Fund's Deborah Weinstein sums up the lack of election-year focus on what has become of welfare's "graduates."

That's not to bash reform. Self-sustaining work beats dependency, and Erie County has mirrored a national trend with rolls here dropping 48 percent in the past six years, officials say. But the county still has about 2,900 hard-core cases it needs to resolve before the five-year lifetime deadline kicks in.

The county has special welfare-to-work teams focusing on those cases. A pilot project involving one team found that 90 percent of those placed in jobs after the intensive help were still working 12 months later, says Debra Collins, administrative consultant.

But welfare reform in general has lacked that kind of follow-up to determine what happens to the bulk of recipients who don't get that special help. And no one running for office seems the least bit interested in finding out.

The 1996 law expires after next year, meaning its renewal will spark debate during 2001 - a non-election year. The data being gathered by the Children's Defense Fund and local groups will come in handy then.

The problem is that nobody's talking about it now, in a campaign year when priorities are being set. It's as if, when Washington's finest said, "don't ask, don't tell," they also had poor people in mind.

Copyright 1999 - 2000 The Buffalo News

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