Ronald Reagan apparently hasn't been listening when Nancy Reagan tells him about her favorite social program, Foster Grandparents. The president seems also to have forgotten that Head Start was one of his seven "safety net" programs. And he can't recall that his Republican friend, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, is among the most ardent supporters of the Job Corps.
These are Great Society programs, begun in the mid-1960s by Lyndon Johnson and continued through today by a Congress that knows of their wide public support. But Reagan, neither listening nor remembering, attacked Great Society programs in a speech the other day to a group of black Republicans. Blacks "would be appreciably better off today" if the Great Society had been skipped over. "Economic progress for America's poor had come to a tragic halt" when the effect of the programs was felt. Funding them created a spending "binge" that "threatened the character of our people."
This was no expression of legitimate philosophical differences between conservative and liberal approaches to eliminating poverty. Reagan's presentation, heedless of facts that his wife and friends could have offered, was a witless distortion of the positive role that government intervention played in the 1960s. The speech was a weak justification for the current assault the administration is waging on programs for the poor.
Some current Census Bureau figures give the lie to Reagan's claims. In 1981, the ratio of citizens under the poverty line ($9,287 for a family of four) was 14 percent. In 1959, the poverty ratio was 22 percent. It had dropped to 12 percent in 1969, about five years after a large number of the Johnson programs began. For blacks in 1959, it was 55 percent. Now it is 34 percent.
The Reagan administration would like it both ways. For the past two years, many of its officials have argued that the poor really aren't poor because they get so many in-kind benefits through such programs as food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, school lunches and child nutrition, and that these aren't counted in the poverty statistics. But now the president turns around and attacks these programs for not helping the poor.
Reagan's put-down of the Great Society programs has a context. His "I-didn't-create-this-mess" strategy is unfolding. Until now we have been given no specifics on the mess-creators and the shambles they made of what Reagan calls "the economic health" of the 1950s. But now he is going to the poor and the blacks, previously unnoticed, to announce that such 1982 messes as job lines and food lines are the legacy of LBJ and those binging '60s liberals.
The desperate times overtaking the country and the suffering endured by citizens who are out of jobs and food through no fault of their own deserve better than a president pretending that poverty is a Democrats-vs.-Republicans issue. Many of the Johnson-era programs were supported and improved by officials during the Nixon-Ford years.
Reagan still can't accept the institutional changes created by these programs. For the first time, local, state and federal governments were required to get near poor people: give them seats on food stamp or Head Start advisory boards, let them have jobs in running Community Action agencies, hire them as VISTA volunteers, allow them to organize into blocs so that Legal Services lawyers could file class-action suits on their behalf.
To the faction of conservatives in the 1970s that wanted to be led by Reagan, this was radicalism. It meant a sharing of power with the poor. While he was governor of California, Reagan's attacks on the programs satisfied the right wing's feeding frenzy. The speech he gave the other day--demeaning in tone to the majority of blacks and deceitful in its ignoring of the evidence--echoed the Reagan of a decade ago, when he issued such blasts for his two-minute radio spots and was the rival of Paul Harvey.
As president, Reagan seeks to project himself as a caring man. Thus he tells the poor that the Great Society programs threatened their "character." He has come to the rescue. Through his cuts in funds for jobs, housing and food, the poor are entering a new era of low-cost character building.