This past Oct. 9 marked what would have been John Lennon’s 75th birthday. I still can vividly recall the first time I heard the inspiring lyrics to “Imagine,” his best-selling single: “No need for greed or hunger…a brotherhood of man…Imagine all the people sharing all the world...”

As for hunger, the United States has for a long time now exhibited a national conscience for those in need. Our national commitment to fighting poverty was largely initiated when Franklin D. Roosevelt made “freedom from want” one of the four freedoms to which every American was entitled.

I remember hearing the late Hon. Andrew O’Rourke (former judge and Westchester county executive) talk about how his family was on public assistance early in his life and how vital it was for their survival.

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Every president since FDR has followed his lead by embracing the idea that we are a compassionate people and that hunger and extreme poverty are antithetical to what we stand for.

Even conservative President Ronald Reagan, who inspired generations of Americans (many of whom are now in office today), made it clear that he, too, was committed to helping the needy:

‘’We will continue to fulfill the obligations that spring from our national conscience. Those who through no fault of their own must depend on the rest of us, the poverty-stricken, the disabled, the elderly, all those with true need, can rest assured that the social safety net of programs they depend on are exempt from any cuts.’’

In spite of President Reagan’s pledge and although the money dedicated to helping people in need was dwarfed by other expenditures (defense, for example), spending money on the most vulnerable in our society has long been a target 0f social conservatives. Consequently, back in 1986, presidential advisor Peter Germanis helped write President Reagan’s budgetary initiative addressing the issue of poverty programs entitled “Up from Dependency: A New National Public Assistance Strategy.”  Although the proposal never passed Congress, it became an important part of the welfare conversation.

A few years later, Democratic President Bill Clinton agreed with a Republican Congress to “end welfare as we know it” and the poor really took a hit. Besides putting a cap on how long a family could receive help, the legislative compromise between the president and the Republican Congress mandated that any monetary assistance would now be administered in the form of block grants to the states administered through the Temporary Assistance for the Needy (T.A.N.F.) program.

Over the past 20 years, although the numbers of the people in need has skyrocketed, the funding (16.5 billion) has remained the same. That means, in effect, that the money for poor families (where every dollar counts for survival) has one-third less buying power than it did back in 1995. 

Today, the states wield enormous power on how to spend the money and more importantly whether to spend it on the poor at all. Even though faced with huge numbers of people in poverty, most states spend less than half of their T.A.N.F. funds on child care and work programs, instead using the money for what they consider to be more important budgetary concerns (like balancing the budget). 

Arizona has gone so far as to limit the access to the program for only 12 months over a lifetime (federal law provides for five years). That means that 5,000 truly needy people will be kicked off the rolls in just a few months. Benefits in Arizona were cut by 20 percent in 2009 and in spite of the fact that there are more poor than ever, the state provides for 16,000 fewer people today than it did in 2005. Yet, as people are dropped, the state politicians can claim “success” in reducing “welfare dependency.”

This trend is not just happening in Arizona, as states have learned that merely by dropping the needy from the “welfare rolls” they can join Arizona’s claim of success. But the level of suffering and struggle for the people being abandoned by their government can hardly be described as a success by any humane standard. In 2012, for example, throughout America 20 percent of those receiving food stamps had absolutely no other source of income. Today, only one-quarter of families with children in extreme poverty receive T.A.N.F. benefits whatsoever. This is down 65 percent from 20 years ago. The national conscience that President Reagan referred to is nowhere to be found as people in need suffer like never before.

The situation is so dire that even the original architect of President Reagan’s plan, Paul Germanis, has decided to weigh in: “I have also worked for and written about welfare at conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute…While I affix most of the blame for T.A.N.F.’s problems on Congress, there have been many opportunities to address the problems…and there is enough blame to go around for everyone, including myself…(I do) not intend to impugn the motives of those who designed T.A.N.F. and/or support it…to the extent that anything I ever wrote contributed to the creation of T.A.N.F. or any block grant, I am sorry…a block grant for a safety net program is bad public policy.”

Yet our “bad public policy” is about to get a lot worse. Every single one of the main Republican candidates for president has included some reference to poverty and social inequality in their campaign speeches and none have indicated any sensitivity to the plight of the poor. House Speaker Paul Ryan is hosting a “poverty summit” on Jan. 9 in Columbia, S.C. and all the candidates are expected to be there. At that time, Ryan will propose, and I suspect the presidential candidates will endorse, a broad expansion of the block grant concept. It will be couched in warm and fuzzy language like “opportunity grants.”

Under the new Ryan initiative, what little is left of the federally guaranteed safety net today will be gone. In the future, all aid to the truly needy (if Ryan gets his way) will be subject to the will and whim of the individual state governors and legislatures. Ryan’s “opportunity grants” will allow the states to take the grant money and then substitute it for present state aid. The net effect will be a substantial reduction of help to the poor.

If this goes through, can we expect our state officials to have the compassion and social conscience to maintain basic resources for the poor? Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg just a few days ago said he is skeptical of state and federal elected officials, saying they are ruled almost entirely by a desire for re-election.

I on the other hand have hope. In the words of John Lennon: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one, I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”

Thank you, John.