President Reagan today gave an extended defense of his record on civil rights and women's issues, and said the domestic spending cuts he has pushed through Congress have not been an attack on the poor but an effort to reduce dependency in America.
In a speech to the American Bar Association, the president used some of his sharpest language to date on the rights and fairness questions that have continued to dog him this year.
One charge--that he is undermining the independence of the Commission on Civil Rights by seeking to replace three of its six members--he dismissed as "hogwash." He said such earlier presidents as John F. Kennedy also had sought to have the Civil Rights Commission reflect their views, and "the plain truth is, our nominees are independent." Civil rights groups have fastened on the independence issue only because those he has chosen "don't worship at the altar of forced busing and mandatory quotas," he said.
Reagan has also been criticized for not naming more women and minority-group members to the bench. He responded by saying, "We aim for a cross-section of appointments . . . , but . . . we will never select individuals just because they are men or women, whites or blacks, Jews, Catholics or whatever."
The president said he had come to "reaffirm today our unshakable commitment to eliminate discrimination against blacks, women, the handicapped and other minorities," and that while "those who specialize in partisan rhetoric and the politics of accusation may close their eyes to progress," much has been done in the last 30 months to "assure that every woman has an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream.
"Take a look at America, 1983," he said. "Things are changing--and for the better. The income tax marriage penalty has been greatly reduced; the maximum child care tax credit for working mothers has been increased--almost doubled . . . . We've authorized larger IRA individual retirement account contributions for working women. We're strengthening child support enforcement to make absent fathers meet their obligations." He also noted that the administration has moved in the courts to "remedy inequities" in retirement systems.
"I think we need a new dialogue in America," the president told the 4,600 members of the bar group. "It might begin with an intellectual housecleaning in Washington, D.C. It's time to bury the myth that bigger government brings more opportunity and compassion."
Disputing the charge that his economic policies and especially his domestic spending cuts have been unfair to the poor, Reagan said, "A sparkling economy is the best hope for all who strive to pull themselves up," and phrased the budget issue in terms less of social equity than national character.
"If we look at recent history," he said, "I believe one conclusion is inescapable: no overall improvement occurred in reducing poverty in America during the very period when government spending in the name of the poor was exploding . . . , while even worse, between 1971 and 1980, the percentage of American households dependent on welfare rose by 20 percent. This tragedy was accompanied by the increasing breakdown of families. Nearly half of all poor families in 1980 were headed by women."
He suggested that social workers helped perpetuate this new reliance on government, and said, "I don't question their good intentions, but their economic self-interest lay in extending dependency, not in ending it. The tradition that public assistance should be shunned was replaced by an income transfer ethic," he continued. "Let us have the courage to speak the truth. Policies that increase dependency and break up families are not progressive, they're reactionary--even though they are invariably promoted, passed and carried out in the name of fairness, generosity and compassion."
But while talking of women and minorities he did not forget his conservative precepts. He asked the lawyers to help him win suport for prayer in schools, announced that he has asked the Justice Department to "crack down on the peddlers of filth and smut," pornographers, and said he believes "the scales of criminal justice have tilted too far toward protecting criminals."