P is for Paul and Poverty


THE FIRST TIME I met Paul, he was panhandling on the corner of Charles and Baltimore streets, trying to get enough money for another drink.

He was dressed in layers of dark clothing that were horribly baggy on him except around the distended, swollen belly. His eyes were red and bleary, and he seemed oblivious to the cold. He held out a dirty foam cup with a few coins in it and muttered in a deadened voice, "Help me out?"

Yes, I helped him out. That was three years ago. Today, Paul is about to move into a Section 8 (subsidized) apartment in West Baltimore. He has almost five months' sobriety, takes two psychiatric medicines and attends a daily outpatient program for recovering alcoholics. He is 50 pounds slimmer, his eyes are no longer red, and his voice is full of energy and hope.

Paul was one of four children born to a working-class couple in a neighboring state. His father was the stuff nightmares are made of: violent, impulsive, given to temper tantrums and rages.

Paul and his mother were beaten and abused regularly by his father. When Paul was 12, his mother killed his father in the heat of an argument. Paul spent 13 of his next 25 year in jail: for petty theft, drunk and disorderly behavior, violating probation. He lived through the classic cruelty and abuse of the jail system only to replace it with the depravation of the streets. After Paul and I became friends, I had no trouble understanding how he'd become an alcoholic. I had trouble understanding why he wasn't a corpse.

Building blocks

While it is true that Paul's recovery has been remarkable and his strength, tenacity and courage are inspiring, we should also consider society's contributions of helpful building blocks in the process, blocks that are now being removed or shaved away.

Food Stamps: Paul has received them for the past five months. Under the Welfare Reform bill, overall food stamp expenditures will be reduced by $28 billion over the next six years, and unemployed adults like Paul will be limited to three months of food stamps per three-year period.

Public Assistance: Paul is eligible for Maryland's Temporary Emergency Medical and Housing Assistance. This means he may receive $100 a month. General Public Assistance was eliminated in 1992, replaced with the Disability Assistance and Loan Program, which Gov. Parris Glendening replaced with TEMHA. Disabled beneficiaries have seen the monthly allotment drop from $205 to $157 to $100.

Public Housing: The House and Senate are working on a public housing reform bill. The results will bring decreases in the supply of public housing, and new provisions allowing housing authorities to raise rents for low-income tenants in subsidized housing. Fewer and fewer people such as Paul would be served with affordable units and would pay higher rents.

Social Security: President Clinton signed a new law in March. It amends the Social Security Act by denying cash assistance and Medicaid to addicts and alcoholics (unless they have other severe disabilities). Those whose only ailment is addiction/alcoholism will be cut off on Jan. 1. If alcoholism were Paul's only diagnosis, he would be disqualified from receiving benefits.

Medicaid: The Health Care Financing Administration has given state waivers on almost every aspect of Medicaid requirements. Congress may make Medicaid a block grant, eliminating the guarantee that individuals or providers would receive any specific services or payments. Paul's treatment at the outpatient center and his medication are covered by Medicaid.

Put all these cuts together and they spell Poverty -- the same poverty President Lyndon Johnson declared war on in 1965. Do we want it to remain a permanent part of the American landscape?

What will destitute and disabled adults eat? Where will they live? How will they pay their rent? Where and how will they enter treatment and receive medical care? What are the hidden social costs of cutting back services to the poor so quickly and dramatically? How can we expect them to improve their lives, get a job, stay sober, etc. when they cannot find treatment, food or housing?

Unless we are willing to support poor people like Paul in their recovery -- by helping them with the basics -- success stories like his will become ever rarer.

Lauren Siegel is a Baltimore social worker.

Pub Date: 8/09/96

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