Created 2/21/1996
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Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Speech on Welfare Reform

Delivered September 16, 1995

I, at least, found this very eloquent--a good summary of how we as a country have lost our way, and no longer have a sense that we are one people or a sense of what are our collective duties and obligations to one another

On this, the likely final day of the debate on the welfare reform measure before us, it is worth noting that in the lead story of The New York Times this morning, a story by Robin Toner, we read that "the White House, exceedingly eager to support a law that promises to change the welfare system, was sending increasingly friendly signals about the bill."

That is a bill that would repeal Title IV A of the Social Security Act of 1935 that provides aid to dependent children. It will be the first time in the history of the nation that we have repealed a section of the Social Security Act. That the White House should be eager to support such a law is beyond my understanding, and certainly in thirty-four years' service in Washington, beyond my experience.

I regret it. I can only wish some who are involved in the White House or those in the Administration would know that they might well resign if they disagree with the proposal that violates every principle they have asserted in their careers, honorable careers in public service.

I will state once again, we yeasterday read Mr. Rahm Emanuel, a White House spokesman, saying the measure was coming along "nicely." Today we get the same message in a lead story in the Times. If this administration wishes to go down in history as one that abandoned, eagerly abandoned, the national commitment to dependent children, so be it. I would not want to be associated with such an enterprise, and I shall not be.

There being some spare time in our schedule just now, I would like to take the occasion, and exercise the privilege, as I see it, of reading to the Senate the lead editorial in The Washington Post. It is entitled "Welfare Theories." This is an editorial page which has been dealing thoughtfully, supportively, with welfare problems for thirty-five years.

On the opposite page, columnist George Will musters the most powerful argument against the welfare bill now on the Senate floor. The bill purports to be a way of sending strong messages to welfare recipients that it is time for them to mend their ways. But as Mr. Will notes, "no child is going to be spiritually improved by being collateral damage in a bombardment of severities targeted at adults who may or may not deserve more severe treatment from the welfare system."

The bill is eckless because it could endanger the well-being of the poorest children in society in the name of a series of untested theories about how people may respond to some new incentives. Surely a Congress whose majority proudly carries the mantle "conservative" should be wary of risking human suffering on behalf of some ideologically-driven preconceptions. Isn't that what conservatives always accuse liberals of doing?

The best thing that can be said of this bill is that it's not as bad as it might have been. Some of the most obviously flawed proposals--mandating that States end welfare assistance to children born to mothers while they are on welfare and that they cut off assistance to teen mothers--have been voted down. There will be at least some requirements that States continue to invest resources in programs for the poor in exchange for their current federal budget allocations. But they are still not strong enough, and are potentially loophole-ridden. Some new money for child care may also be sprinkled onto this confection.

But the structure of the bill is wrong, and a fundamental untruth lies at its heart. Congress wants to claim that it is (1) doing something about a whole series of social and economic pathologies, while at the same time (2) cutting spending. But a welfare reform that is serious about both promoting work and helping children in single-parent homes will cost more than writing checks, especially given the extremely modest sums now spent by so many states on the poor.

Going to a block grant formula would destroy one of the few obvious merits of the current system, which is its ability to respond flexibly to regional economic upturns or downturns. On top of this, the bill's provisions on foodstamps and its reductions in assistance to disabled children under the Supplemental Security Income program go beyond what might constitute reasonable reforms. And its provisions cutting aid to legal immigrants would backfire on states with large immigrant populations.

Many senators will be tempted to vote for this bill anyway, arguing that it has been "improved" and fearing the political consequences of voting against anything labeled welfare reform. But many of the "improvements"" will disappear once the bill goes to a conference with the House, which has passed an even more objectionable bill. In any event, voting this bill down would be exactly the opposite of a negative act. It would be an affirmation that real welfare reform is both necessary and possible. To get to that point, a dangerous bill posing as the genuine article must be defeated first.

That is the end of the editorial.

What I cannot comprehend is why this is so difficult for the administration to understand. The administration has abandoned us, those of us who oppose this legislation.

Why do we not see the endless parade of petitioners as when helath care reform was before us in the last Congress, the lobbyists, the pretend citizen groups, the real citizen groups? None are here.

I can recall the extraordinary energy that went into any change in the welfare system thirty years ago, twenty-five years ago. Fifteen years ago, if there was a proposal to take $40 out of some demonstration project here on the Senate floor, there would be forty representatives of various advocacy groups outside.

There are very few advocacy groups outside. You can stand where I stand and look straight out at the Supreme Court--not a person in between that view. Not one of those flaunted, vaunted advocacy groups forever protecting the interests of the children and the helpless and the homeless and the what-you-will. Are they increasingly subsidized and therefore increasingly co-opted?

Are they silent because the White House is silent? They should be ashamed. History will shame them.

One group was in Washington yesterday and I can speak with some spirit on that. This was a group of Catholic bishops and members from Catholic Charities. They were here. They were in Washington. Nobody else. None of the great marchers, the great chanters, the great non-negotiable demanders.

There is one police officer that has just appeared, but otherwise the lobby by the elevators is as empty this morning as it was when I left the Chamber last night about 10 o'clock.

I read in The New York Times this morning, the front page, lead article:

And the White House, exceedingly eager to suppot a law that promises to change the welfare system, was sending increasingly friendly signals about the bill.

I see my friend from Indiana, Senator Coats, on the floor. I know his view will be different from mine on the bill. But I recall that extraordinary address he gave yesterday on civil society, citing such as Nathan Glazer and James Q. Wilson. In response, I quoted some of their observations to the effect that we know we have to do these things, but we do not know how to do them. We are just at the beginning of recognizing how profound a question it is, as the Senator so brilliantly set forth. But first, do no harm. Do not pretend that you know what you do not know. Look at the beginnings of research and evaluation that say, "Very hard, not clear." Do not hurt children on the basis of an unproven theory and untested hypothesis.

That is what the Senator was citing, persons yesterday who said just that. This morning The Washington Post in its lead editorial, speaks of the structure of the bill begin wrong, that a fundamental untruth lies at its heart.

Congress wants to claim that it is (1) doing something about a whole series of social and economic pathologies, while at the same time (2) cutting spending.

The nostrums, the unsupported beliefs, the unsupported assertions, are quite astounding. White House spokesman Rahm Emanuel yesterday told us things are going well. I say once again there is such a thing as resigning in government, and there comes a time when, if principle matters at all, you resign. People who resign on principle come back; people whose real views are less important than their temporary position, "their brief authority," as Shakespeare once put it, disappear.

If that brief authority is more important than the enduring principles of protecting children and childhood, then what is to be said of those who prefer the one to the other? What is to be said of a White House that was almost on the edge of excess in its claims of empathy and concern in the last Congress but is now prepared to see things like this happen in the present Congress?

All they want, and I quote again from The Washington Post, is that "some new money for child care may also be sprinkled onto this confection."

It will shame this Congress. It will spoil the conservative revolution. The Washington Post makes this clear. If "conservative" means anything, it means be careful, be thoughtful, and anticipate the unanticipated or understnad that things will happen that you do not expect. And be very careful with the lives of children.

I had no idea how profoundly what used to be known as liberalism was shaken by the last election. No president, Republican or Democrat, in history, or sixty years' history, would dream of agreeing to the repeal of Title IV A of Social Security. Clearly this administration is contemplating just that.

I cannot understand how this could be happening. It has never happened before.

I make no claim to access. Hardly a soul in the White House has talked to me about this subject since it arose. They know what I think and they know what I would say; not about the particulars but the principle--the principle. Does the Federal Government maintain a commitment to State programs providing aid to dependent children?

It is not as if we had just a few. Ten million is a round number, at any moment.

As George Will observes in his column, and the Washington Post editorial refers to his column--the numbers are extraordinary:

Here are the percentages of children on AFDC at some point during 1993 in five cities: Detroit (67), Philadelphia (57), Chicago (46), New York (39), Los Angeles (38).

Then he cites this Senator:

There are... not enough social workers, not enough nuns, not enough Salvation Army workers to care for children who would be purged from the welfare rolls were Congress to decree... a two-year limit for welfare eligibility.

Mr. Will goes on to cite Nicholas Eberstadt, of Harvard and the American Enterprise Institute. Citing Eberstadt, Mr. Will observes:

Suppose today's welfare policy incentives to illegitimacy were transported back in time to Salem, Mass., in, say, 1660. How many additional illegitimate births would have occurred in Puritan Salem? Few, because the people of Salem in 1660 believed in hell and believed that what are today called "disorganized lifestyles" led to hell. Congress cannot legislate useful attitudes.

I can say of my friend Mr. Eberstadt, I do not know where his politics would be, save they would be moderate, sensible, based on research. He is a thoughtful man; a demographer. He has studied these things with great care. And he, too, cannot comprehend national policy at this point.

Scholars have been working at these issues for years now, and the more capable they are, the more tentative and incremental their findings. I cited yesterday a research evaluation of a program, now in its fifth year, of very intensive counseling and training with respect to the issue of teen births--with no results. No results. It is a very common encounter, when things as profound in human character and behavior are dealt with. The capacity of external influences to change it is so very small.

And that we shoul dthink otherwise? That men and women have stood in this Chamber and talked about a genuine crisis. And I have said, if nothing else comes out of this awful process, at least we shall have addressed the central subject. But if it is that serious, how can we suppose it will be changed by marginal measures? It will not.

Are there no serious persons in the administration who can say, "Stop, stop right now. No. We won't have this. We agree with The Washington Post that, 'It would be an affirmation that real welfare reform is both necessary and possible. To get to that point a dangerous bill posing as the genuine article must be defeated first.'"? If not, prfoundly serious questions are raised about the year to come.

Copyright 1995 The New York Review of Books


Created 2/21/1996
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Associate Professor of Economics Brad De Long, 601 Evans
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