IN A CAPITAL where it has become conventional wisdom that government programs don't work and that efforts to help the poor inevitably lose ground, it is something of an event to see a group of Republicans and Democrats agreeing that certain programs do work. That's the conclusion of a bipartisan staff report released last week by the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. It is subscribed to not only by chairman George Miller, a Democrat who comes from the wing of his party that has never given up on government programs, but also by ranking Republican Dan Coats, who comes from the wing of his party that has for 50 years been skeptical of government initiatives.
Singled out for praise are eight specific programs. Studies are cited, data presented, costs noted. The programs for infants include the WIC supplemental food program for pregnant women and babies, prenatal care programs and Medicaid neonatal and infant mortality programs. For young children, there are immunization subsidies, preschool programs such as Head Start, and compensatory education programs. For older children, there are education for the handicapped and the Job Corps. The report talks in cost-benefits language and argues a little tendentiously that spending money now on these programs saves certain specific larger sums later. That stretches it a bit. The case for these programs doesn't depend on their making some kind of profit. What is critical is that they do useful things, useful for the immediate beneficiaries and for society -- and do them well.
The willingness of the Republicans to subscribe to this report is not an isolated occurrence. Many Republicans, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, have wondered as they nurture family values whether families are really nurtured by laissez faire economic policies. They have been stung by the taunt that opponents of abortion care about the quality of the child's life only from conception to birth, and they have been thinking hard about what can be done to improve the quality of life in early and middle childhood. They have been reflecting also, more hardheadedly, on the consequences of raising a generation an increasing proportion of which is affected by poor health and nutrition, and poor education.
Some of the programs praised in this report have come in for rather different treatment in Reagan administration budgets. The Job Corps, for example, was to be zeroed out, child nutrition deeply cut, child welfare benefits cut back. The Republicans who find themselves agreeing that these programs also help are quick to add in the same breath that there's just not any more money for them and not likely to be much in any out years either. A lot of Democrats are inclind to agree. For the short term, they may be right. As a matter of sensible and humane public policy, for the long term, they are surely beginning to wonder whether they may be wrong. In the meantime, let politicians of both parties take note. Some programs do work. Some people do need help.