... while in America, the hungry poor swell queues for charity food

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Even the sharpest critics of welfare reform in the United States have been forced to acknowledge its benefits. The number of claimants has fallen, while predictions of increased destitution have not been borne out - or have they? Mary Dejevsky weighs the evidence.

Throughout the Western world, the Christmas season is a time for charities to draw attention to the plight of the poor and hungry - and so they did in the United States. That Second Harvest, the biggest food charity in the US, should have released its findings now, rather than a month ago, however, suggests that concern, rather than fund-raising, is its prime motive.

Its preliminary findings have surprised charity workers. According to Second Harvest, which co-ordinates the distribution of more than $1bn of donated food annually, demand rose last year by 14 per cent on average, and by up to 50 per cent in some places. Donations fell. "People come to us because their cupboards are bare," said Sister Christine Vladimiroff, a Benedictine nun who runs the Chicago-based charity. "We don't want to have to say, 'Well, ours is, too'."

A survey of 29 cities for the US Conference of Mayors reported last month that requests for emergency food had risen by an average of 16 per cent in the year to June 1997, the largest increase registered for five years. It found that almost 20 per cent of applicants were turned away, and that in half the cities surveyed, food donations fell short of what was needed.

Similar reports have come in from cities all over the US. The New York City council is considering a $2m (pounds 1.2m) increase in its subsidy to city food banks, to cover the rise in demand and fall in donations. From Massachusetts, the Salvation Army reported a 62 per cent increase in demand for its services. Some 14 per cent of the population of the state, one of the richest in the US, were recorded as visiting food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters.

Some blame the increase in appeals for food directly on welfare cuts in eligibility for food stamps, the main means of state assistance to the poor. It is four months since the last of the federal cuts in food stamps came into effect - these deprive, among others, legal immigrants of working age, and narrow the eligibility for disability support - and one theory is that the effect is now working its way through the system.

Second Harvest, however, cautions against oversimplification. Many states have made up benefits withdrawn by the federal government. In Massachusetts, officials note, the increase began before the main cuts in food stamps took effect.

Some identify a double trend which could prove more damaging than the withdrawal of food stamps alone. Their analysis suggests the increased numbers of people applying to charities are not only people whose food stamps and benefits have been cut - for instance, those who have not found jobs. Some, they say, are the very people for whom the welfare reforms are supposed to be working so well: single mothers who found jobs and are now working.

The vast majority of those who are newly employed are earning only the minimum wage of $5.75 an hour. For the first six months, in some states longer, these workers' health insurance and child care continue to be subsidised. In time, however, those benefits are withdrawn. The costs of housing, food, childcare and medicine add up to more than a minimum- wage worker can afford. A system of credits makes up some of the gap, and the ideal is that workers will make their way up the job ladder.

The fear of some welfare reformers is, however, that some will never move far beyond the lower rungs - leaving them as badly off in work than they were before.

With economists predicting a possible slowdown in the US economy this year, the prospects for an improvement in the lot of the poorest workers looks bleak. Second Harvest is among the charities hoping that President Bill Clinton, in his State of the Union address this month and the budget proposals that follow, will choose to spend some of the projected US budget surplus on those who risk hunger in the most prosperous country in the world.