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When Principle Is at Issue

By Daniel P. Moynihan
Sunday, August 4 1996; Page C07


From a Senate speech on the welfare bill delivered Thursday by Sen. Moynihan (D-N.Y.):

It is not easy to change human behavior. Notwithstanding this fact, the premise of this legislation is that the behavior of certain adults can be changed by making the lives of their children as wretched as possible. This is a fearsome assumption, in my view. It is certainly not a conservative one.

If we acknowledge the difficulty in bringing about the transition from welfare to work, we must recognize that putting people to work on a large scale would require a large-scale public jobs program, and that would require a great deal of money.

Let me say that Democrats were the first to fail in this regard. In the company of Sargent Shriver and Adam Yarmolinsky, I attended the Cabinet meeting in the spring of 1964 where we presented the plans for a war on poverty. Our principal proposal, backed by Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz, was a massive jobs program, along Works Progress Administration lines, to be financed by a cigarette tax. President Johnson listened for a moment or two, announced that in that election year we were cutting tax\es, not raising them. He thereupon picked up the telephone attached to the Cabinet table, called someone, somewhere, about something else, and the war on poverty was lost before it began.

This legislation is even worse.

In fact, this legislation provides some $55 billion less over the next six years. There are work requirements in the bill, but we seem tacitly willing to admit they will never be met. Dr. June O'Neill, director of the Congressional Budget Office, has been most forthcoming on this subject. The CBO report on this bill bluntly states:

"Given the costs and administrative complexities involved, CBO assumes that most states would simply accept penalties rather than implement the [work] requirements."

What else does the evidence show? It shows quite clearly that the central feature of this legislation, the time limit, will affect millions of children. CBO estimates that "under current demographic assumptions, this provision could reduce cash assistance rolls by 30 to 40 percent" within the decade. I should say that again: Thirty to 40 percent of the caseload will be cut off in less than 10 years' time.

Let me put that in terms of how many children will be cut off. According to the Urban Institute, 3,500,000 children will be dropped from the rolls in 2001. By 2005, 4,896,000 children will be cut off.

The Urban Institute has also estimated, in a report released just last Friday, July 26, that this bill will cause 2.6 million persons to fall below the poverty line. One million, one hundred thousand of those impoverished will be children. To say nothing of those persons already living in poverty. They will be pushed even further below the pover\ty line. The average loss in income for families already below the poverty line will be $1,040 per year. I note that the Urban Institute's estimates are based on quite conservative assumptions, so the actual impact could well be even worse than predicted.

I cite this evidence because it is important that we cast our votes with full knowledge of the consequences. This information has been widely available, and I have made these arguments on the floor previously, so I believe we are all on notice of the implications for children.

The implications of this legislation for our state and local governments are another matter. These are not widely known, but they will be very real indeed. On Thursday of last week, two days after the Senate passed its version of this legislation, I received in the mail a four-page letter from the Hon. Rudolph W. Giuliani, mayor of the City of New York. He wrote of his concern that the major provisions of the bill would impose huge new costs on New York City totaling some $900 million per year. The mayor listed the added costs to New York City as follows:

$380 million for child care for welfare recipients.

$290 million for aid to legal immigrants.

$100 million to support persons dropped from federal rolls due to time limits.

$100 million for work programs.

Mayor Giuliani wrote that the bill's ban on federal assistance for legal immigrants was of particular concern to New York City, where 30 percent of the population is foreign-born.

New York will not be alone in this. . . . Sen. Feinstein said on the floor last week that the bill will cost California $17 billion over six years, or about $3 billion annually. Other states – Illinois, Texas, Florida – will also bear immense new burdens. I wonder if they are ready for what is coming.

More importantly, I wonder if the nation is ready for the social change this legislation will set in motion. There are great issues of principle at stake here, as leaders of the religious community have said with such clarity and force. Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, wrote to the president on Friday to urge that this bill be vetoed. Quoting Saint Matthew's Gospel, Bishop Pilla wrote that "the moral measure of our society is how we treat `the least among us.' "

I began these remarks with comment on language. The conference report before us is not "welfare reform," it is "welfare repeal." It is the first step in dismantling the social contract that has been in place in the United States since at least the 1930s. Do not doubt that Social Security itself, which is to say insured retirement benefits, will be next. The bill will be called "The Individual Retirement Account Insurance Act." Something such. John Westergaard points out that this legislation breaks the Social Contract of the 1930s. We would care for the elderly, the unemployed, the dependent children. Drop the latter; watch the others fall.

We are told that this legislation is a defeat for "liberals." We are assured in private, and it is hinted at in print, that many of the president's most "liberal" advisers opposed this legislation. "Liberals" are said to have lost.

This is nonsense. It is conservatives who have lost.

For the best part of two years now, I have pointed out that the principal – and most principled – opponents of this legislation were conservative social scientists who for years have argued against liberal nostrums for changing society with the argument that no one knows enough to mechanistically change society. Typically liberals think otherwise; to the extent that liberals can be said to think at all. The current batch in the White House, now busily assuring us they were against this all along, are simply lying, albeit they probably don't know when they are lying. They have only the flimsiest grasp of social reality, thinking all things doable and equally undoable. As, for example, the horror of this legislation. By contrast, the conservative social scientists – James Q. Wilson, Lawrence Mead, John DiIulio, William Bennett – have warned over and over that this is radical legislation with altogether unforeseeable consequences, many of which will surely be loathsome.

All honor to them. They have kept to their principles. Honor on high as well to the Catholic bishops, who admittedly have an easier task with matters of this sort. When principles are at issue, they simply look them up. Too many liberals, alas, simply make them up.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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