• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Congress Builds a Coffin

(The following appeared in the Congressional Record on December 12, 1995.)

We are now in the final days of the first session of the 104th Congress. In a short while we will have worked out some accommodations on the budget. We must do this, for we will now be engaged in the establishment of some measure of peace and lawful conduct in the Balkans. It would be unforgivable if we put our military in harm’s way abroad without first getting our affairs in some minimal order here at home.

I am fearful, however, that as we close out this session we will also close down the provision for aid to dependent children that dates back sixty years to the Social Security Act of 1935. If this should happen, and it very likely will, the first and foremost reason will be the monstrous political deception embodied in the term “Welfare reform.”

In my lifetime there has been no such Orwellian inversion of truth in the course of a domestic debate. “Welfare reform” in fact means welfare repeal. The repeal, that is, of Title IV-A of the Social Security Act. Everyone is to blame for this duplicity, everyone is an accomplice.

For practical purposes, we can begin with the celebrated “Contract with America,” which pledged that within one hundred days, a “Republican House” would vote on ten bills, including

  1. Welfare reform. The government should encourage people to work, not to have children out of wedlock.

This in itself was unexceptional, especially the second clause. By 1994, the nation had become alarmed by an unprecedented rise in illegitimacy, to ratios altogether ahistorical—from practically nil to almost one third in the course of a half-century. Since illegitimate children commonly end up supported by Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a causal connection was inferred. Not proven. We know desperately little about this great transformation, except that it is happening in all the industrial nations of the North Atlantic.

Undeterred, the new House majority promptly passed a bill which repealed AFDC. Such an act would have been unthinkable a year earlier, just as repealing Old Age pensions or Unemployment Compensation, other titles of the Social Security Act, would be today. At a minimum, it would have seemed cruel to children. But the new Republicans succeeded in entirely reversing the terms of the debate. Instead of aiding children, AFDC was said to harm them. Last month, a Republican member of the House remarked on the importance of child care:

Because our welfare reform package is going to remove people from welfare and get them to work. We understand that child care is a critical step to ending the cruelty of welfare dependency.

What once was seen as charity, or even social insurance, is redefined as cruelty.

This happens. Social problems are continuously redefined. Malcolm Gladwell of The Washington Post has noted that,

In the nineteenth century, the assumption had almost always been that a man without a job was either lazy or immoral. But following the depression of the 1890s, the Progressives “discovered” unemployment.

Which is to say, a personal failing became a societal failing instead. This redefinition has wrought what would once have seemed miracles in the stabilization of our economy. Mass unemployment is now history. On the other hand, such cannot be said for the attempt to dissociate welfare dependency from personal attributes, including moral conduct. As we would say in the old Navy, I am something of a plank owner in this regard.

It is just thirty years since I and my associates on the policy planning staff of the Department of Labor picked up the onset of family instability in the nation, in this case among African Americans. Interestingly, this followed our having failed to establish that macroeconomic problems were the source of the trouble. In the event, I was promptly accused of “Blaming the Victim.” For the thirty years that followed there was an awful tyranny of guilt mongering and accusation that all but strangled liberal debate. One consequence was that when a political force appeared that wished to change the terms of debate altogether, “established” opinion was effortlessly silenced and displaced. Again, Gladwell:

But if anything is obvious from the current budget fight and Capitol Hill’s commitment to scaling back welfare and Medicaid while lavishing extra billions on the Pentagon, it is that this once formidable confidence has now almost entirely slipped away. This is what has given Washington’s current re-examination of the size and shape of government its strange ambivalence. In most revolutions the defenders of the status quo have to be dragged from power, kicking and screaming. In this revolution, the defenders of the old activism toward the poor surrendered willingly, with the shrugs and indifference of those who no longer believed in what they stood for either.

This was painfully evident in the Senate. On August 3, 1995, the Republican majority introduced a “Welfare reform” bill which abolished AFDC. That same day, the Democratic minority introduced a competing “Welfare reform” bill—which also abolished AFDC. On the minority side an enormous fuss is now being made over adding a little extra child care, some odd bits of child nutrition aid, perhaps a little foster care: literally arranging flowers on the coffin of the provision for children in the Social Security Act. Coming from devious persons this would have been a conscious strategy—distracting attention from what was really going on. But these were not, are not, devious persons. Sixty years of program liberalism—a bill for you, a bill for me—have made this legislative behavior seem normal. The enormity of the event has been altogether missed.

I hope this is not mere innocence on my part. The Washington Post editorial page has been unblinking on this subject. An editorial of September 14 described the bill on the Senate floor as “reckless,” adding with a measure of disdain: “Some new money for child care may…be sprinkled onto this confection.” Those seeking to define welfare repeal as welfare reform by “improving” the Republican measure should have known better; but I truly think they did not. In recent years, “child care” has been something of a mantra among liberal “advocates” for the poor. For all its merits, it has awesome defects, which are the defects of American social policy. The most important is that it creates two classes of working mothers: one that gets free government-provided child care; another that does not.

The Clinton administration arrived in Washington sparkling with such enthusiasms. At this time, I was chairman of the Committee on Finance, charged with producing $500 billion in deficit reduction, half through tax increases, half through program cuts. I thought deficit reduction a matter of the first priority, as did my fabled counterpart in the House, Dan Rostenkowski, chairman of Ways and Means. In the end, we got the votes. Barely. Fifty, plus the Vice-President’s in the Senate. But all the while we were taking on this large—and as we can now say hugely successful—effort, we were constantly besieged by administration officials wanting us to add money for this social program or that social program. Immunization was a favorite. Rosty and I were baffled. Our cities had had free immunization for the better part of a century. All children are vaccinated by the time they enter school. If they aren’t vaccinated at earlier ages, it is surely the negligence or ignorance of the parents that can best explain it. But nothing would do: we had to add whatever billion dollars for yet a new government service.

My favorite in this miscellany was something called “family preservation,” yet another categorical aid program (there were a dozen in place already) which amounted to a dollop of social services and a press release for some subcommittee chairman. The program was to cost $930 million over five years, starting at $60 million in Fiscal Year 1994. For three decades I had been watching families come apart in our society; now I was being told by seemingly everyone on the new team that one more program would do the trick. The new Family Preservation program was included in the President’s first budget, but welfare reform was not. In fact, the Administration presented no welfare plan until June of 1994, a year and a half after the President took office. At the risk of indiscretion, let me include in the record at this point a letter I wrote Dr. Laura D’Andrea Tyson, then the distinguished chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, regarding the Family Preservation program:

July 28, 1993

Dear Dr. Tyson:

You will recall that last Thursday when you so kindly joined us at a meeting of the Democratic Policy Committee you and I discussed the President’s family preservation proposal. You indicated how much he supports the measure. I assured you I, too, support it, but went on to ask what evidence was there that it would have any effect. You assured me there was such data. Just for fun, I asked for two citations.

The next day we received a fax from Sharon Glied of your staff with a number of citations and a paper, “Evaluating the Results,” that appears to have been written by Frank Farrow of the Center for the Study of Social Policy here in Washington and Harold Richman at the Chapin Hall Center at the University of Chicago. The paper is quite direct: “…solid proof that family preservation services can effect a state’s overall placement rates is still lacking.”

Just yesterday, the same Chapin Hall Center released an “Evaluation of the Illinois Family First Placement Prevention Program: Final Report.” This was a largescale study of the Illinois Family First initiative authorized by the Illinois Family Preservation Act of 1987. It was “designed to test effects of this program on out-of-home placement of children and other outcomes, such as subsequent child maltreatment.” Data on case and service characteristics were provided by Family First caseworkers on approximately 4,500 cases; approximately 1,600 families participated in the randomized experiment. The findings are clear enough. “Overall, the Family First placement prevention program results in a slight increase in placement rates (when data from all experimental sites are combined). This effect disappears once case and site variations are taken into account.”

In other words, there are either negative effects or no effects.

This is nothing new. Here is Peter Rossi’s conclusion in his 1992 paper, “Assessing Family Preservation Programs.” Evaluations conducted to date “do not form a sufficient basis upon which to firmly decide whether family preservation programs are either effective or not.”

May I say to you that there is nothing the least surprising in either of these findings? From the mid-‘60s on this has been the repeated, I almost want to say consistent pattern of evaluation studies. Either few effects or negative effects. Thus, the negative income tax experiments of the 1970s appeared to produce an increase in family break-up.

This pattern of “counterintuitive” findings first appeared in the ‘60s. Greeley and Rossi, some of my work, Coleman’s. To this day I can’t decide whether we are dealing here with an artifact of methodology or a much larger and more intractable fact of social programs. In any event, by 1978 we had Rossi’s Iron Law. To wit: “If there is any empirical law that is emerging from the past decade of widespread evaluation research activities, it is that the expected value for any measured effect of a social program is zero.”

I write you at such length for what I believe to be an important purpose. In the last six months I have been repeatedly impressed by the number of members of the Clinton Administration who have assured me with great vigor that something or other is known in an area of social policy which, to the best of my understanding, is not known at all. This seems to me perilous. It is quite possible to live with uncertainty; with the possibility, even the likelihood that one is wrong. But beware of certainty where none exists. Ideological certainty easily degenerates into an insistence upon ignorance.

The great strength of political conservatives at this time (and for a generation) is that they are open to the thought that matters are complex. Liberals have got into a reflexive pattern of denying this. I had hoped twelve years in the wilderness might have changed this; it may be it has only reinforced it. If this is so, the current revival of liberalism will be brief and inconsequential.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print