Down on the Downtrodden

Newt Gingrich sets off a race to cut government spending for the poor, but he may be misreading America's mood

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Immigration isn't prominent in the House G.O.P. contract, but it does turn up in one important provision. To help pay for their welfare-reform proposal, which would cost money for things like job training and orphanages, the House G.O.P. would cut off many federal benefits, including student loans, school lunches and disability payments for the elderly, to legal immigrants. Clinton has also proposed tightening these to a lesser extent. Yet these are people who pay taxes and, with the exception of the refugees among them, use welfare less than native-born Americans.

What about giving me your tired, your poor? "The inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty was written before welfare," says Florida Representative Clay Shaw, incoming chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources and the man who will have a great deal of say over welfare reform. "People came to this country to work. Now the question becomes, Are these handouts a magnet that is bringing people into this country? To some degree, they are."

That position doesn't present much political risk for Shaw, who represents a mostly white, non-Hispanic district that includes Miami Beach. Other Republicans are less comfortable with the possibility that their party might become so identified with the anti-immigration sentiment that it turns off the Hispanic voters the party hopes to attract. Though California's Republican House delegation is likely to push for a national Proposition 187, Gingrich himself is opposed.

When all the benefit slashing is over, who picks up where government leaves off? Many private charities that focus on the needy report dangerous signs of slippage in donations. At food banks across the country, there has been a sizable drop-off. At the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, for example, this year's funding drive brought in $450,000, a decline of $70,000 from 1993. In Toledo, Ohio, the number of families asking for emergency food baskets increased 10%. Donations? Down by almost half. Food baskets that used to include whole turkeys now provide turkey parts and surplus government commodities. Much of the decline in giving is explained by tighter efficiency in the food industry, which provides a good part of the food-bank inventory. Imperfect goods -- underbaked cornflakes, dented cans -- that food processors once donated are now sold to new "secondary" retailers like Pick 'n' Save. Checkout scanners help retailers keep better track of inventories, which means the nation's millers, bakers and canners overproduce less. Organizers also sense a grudging mood among private donors. The attitude, says Joyce Ruthermel, executive director of Pittsburgh's food bank, is "not only do we not want our tax dollars to do it, we don't want to do it either."

A large population of the poor, cut off from government help and thrown onto the meager capabilities of private charity -- it's not a pretty picture. "I see a lot of anger and bitterness," warns Doris Bloch, executive director of the Los Angeles Regional Foodbank, where donations are down 41% this year. "If people can't get jobs and enough to eat, they feel they have a very little stake in our society. If we think we have trouble now, hold on."

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