The year 2006 may for most people mark the tenth anniversary of the 1996 Welfare Act, signed by Bill Clinton, after he had vetoed two previous efforts, and just before crucial midterm elections that November. Some supporters apologized for him before his Democratic critics that he was forced into it, and many Democratic party leaders ripped into him for condemning a million or more poor kids to poverty. One even imagined gangs of very young poor children roaming the streets. Two distinguished Democrats once close to Bobby Kennedy, and old friends of mine, Marian Wright Edelman and her husband Peter distanced themselves from the Clinton administration when Peter resigned his high-level post at Health and Human Services in protest of the proposed reform. For my part, I always gave Bill Clinton credit for the substance of his act, signing the bill into law, whatever his motives. On large matters, substance makes all the difference.
So I was happy on August 22 to see Bill Clinton in an op-ed in the New York Times taking credit for signing the bill into law and for all the good things that have happened since. Especially the reduction in black poverty and the poverty of black children. And most important of all to the future, the decline in out-of-wedlock births.
For my part, though, I have been celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the welfare act, because in 1986 some twenty colleagues and I, Democrats and Republicans, from the Left and from the Right, got together in what we called a project in “social invention,” to see if we could agree on what went wrong and what went right in the War on Poverty during the preceding twenty years and then invent a battery of proposals for reform that we could all agree upon.
Since, naturally, no one is giving our study group any credit for changing the field of play with our left/right consensus, and our new definition of the problem, I think a footnote to history might be within the bounds of modesty and candor, especially since I cherish our work on the commission as one of the most important projects in which I have ever cooperated. Maybe a few of my colleagues do, too.
Let me pause here to mention their names. It was Michael Horowitz who put us up to it and insisted that I ought to be the moderator and drafter of the agreement, precisely because I was the least expert in the bunch on the material to be studied, and the least involved in mutual arguments among the professionals in the field. John Cogan, an expert’s expert, was made co-chairman to make some crucial decisions and to add some professional solidity to the public presentation.
Our great colleagues included Alice Rivlin, Robert D. Reischauer, Stanford Ross, Franklin D. Raines, Richard P, Nathan, Lawrence Mead, Charles Murray, Donald Moran, Michael Stern, Blanche Bernstein from New York City welfare studies, Douglas J.Besharov, Barbara Blum, Allan Carlson, S. Anna Kondratas, Leslie Lenkowsky, Glenn C. Loury, Richard John Neuhaus, and our brilliant young staff researcher and drafter was Karl Zinsmeister.
We began by studying the War on Poverty and compared its stated aims with what it actually achieved during its first 20 years. The book was published in 1987, to quiet but virtually universal acclaim—it won a cover story in The Economist. In our testimony before the U.S. Senate, both Republicans and Democrats praised it firmly and solidly. Senator Moynihan wrote of it quite warmly: “Rarely does a work of scholarship attain to statecraft. The New Consensus on Family and Welfare does that and more. It compels agreement and arouses energies where all has been dissentience and resignation. A wondrous work.” Perhaps one reason he liked the study so much was that it focused most on the family, not on the individual. Most works at that time didn’t, although all through Moynihan’s career he had singled out the family as a central axis of sociology, even when he was swimming against very powerful tides. Our study helped to turn that tide. It was not alone in that, but it was significant.
• We were the first to make prominent the term “dependency” as a better indicator than “poverty” for what was going wrong. Many people (immigrants from Africa and Asia, for example) who had income below the poverty line had high morale, worked hard, and were rapidly moving up the economic ladder. The problem of many of those young and healthy adults over twenty or so, who didn’t move up, was not really lack of money but some inability to become independent and govern their own lives, let alone to care properly for those who were necessarily dependent upon them.
We noted along with this that welfare programs for the elderly had really altered the lives of the elderly for the better, and dramatically. Many were now living more independently and comfortably than ever before. Many were now also living far beyond sixty-five, so that a new word had to be coined for those over 85: “the elderly elderly.” Yet the same welfare reforms had been disastrous for the young family, partly because increasing numbers of the young did not even form families. “Single, never-married” had become a larger and larger category in the profile of the poor, as also did “Single householder with children, never married.”
• We showed how it was reasonable to discuss illegitimacy as an issue without racial invidiousness, since it was now afflicting whites in larger numbers (although, of course, at lower rates) than blacks. It could be found in growing numbers in white rural communities, as in Iowa, Nebraska, and the like. Besides, whatever one’s moral feelings about illegitimacy, no one could deny that it was becoming financially very costly for the government, for the hospitals, for youth unemployment (or worse, unemployability), and for the criminal justice system. Once you turned your attention to what was going on in different types of families, the facts spoke with lightning and thunder in their stark clarity.
• We demonstrated for the first time that if a young couple did three things (this was the part that The Economist liked best), they had about a 93 percent chance of moving out of poverty:
– Complete high school (after all, it’s already mandatory, and it’s free)
– Work full time year-round, even at the minimum wage
– Get married and, even if not on the first try, stay married
Couples who did these three simple things had less than a 7 percent chance of remaining in poverty. You could look it up in the federal tables under “Characteristics of Poor Families, Households.”
• Then, looking toward the future, and a new period of social invention, we proposed about seventy different reforms in government legislation and regulation, as well as practical initiatives for active, caring citizens who mean by “compassion” not a feeling but a sharp eye on results.
As usually happens, today we get very little attention for our early arrival on the battlefield, but we did bring a lot of attention to Governor Tommy Thompson and many other local officials who were racking up success stories. We took care to spread the book on the Hill and to both the Bush I and Clinton White Houses.
Since our book was bipartisan and gave plenty of evidence for each assertion, and each new definition of terms, it became part of the common understanding, working like yeast in dough.
It was a good piece of work. The reforms that followed ten years later, under President Clinton, and then their almost immediate and still growing success—justly celebrated by his op-ed with facts and figures—vindicated our analysis, prescriptions, and predictions.
The project is a source of great satisfaction to me personally, because the experts provided the facts and arguments, while Karl Zinsmeister and I merely wrote up what they provided and got each sentence revised until it was approved by the whole group, sentence by sentence. We did not leave a sentence until everybody approved.
What we aimed at was consensus, with complete agreement and no minority reports. It was a thirty-Excedrin-long and painstaking project. It took a certain amount of diplomacy and, most of all, honest reporting of what people in the field had learned and were now willing to stand behind in public. It took great bipartisan generosity on the part of all who participated.
Looking back on it, I think bipartisanship operated as protection for everybody. No one could score partisan points, and everybody worked to make sure that what we were all going to publish under our own names had solid intellectual support. What we were finding was not then common knowledge, and many on all sides were prepared to be opposed to our analysis and our proposals. In our group, everyone’s reputation was at stake.
On publication, astonishingly to many people, our main arguments carried the day almost universally, although of course at various points disagreement continued, quite properly.
When we finished our report of our findings to a Senate hearing, and submitted to a long round of questioning, one of the senators (I think it was Senator Dole) looked at the political range of our group and said, “Well, if you cowboys and ranchers can be friends, I think we might rustle up support in both parties over here, too.” The domestic side of the White House cabinet, including President Reagan, met with us for a seminar. They concurred that they would welcome a bill from the Congress along these lines but doubted the time was quite ripe for the whole Congress to go that far. President Reagan said such a bill would fulfill the third of his original promises to the nation, which he had not yet been able to get to: welfare reform.
I should end by thanking the Bradley Foundation for its support, and especially the visionary advice of Michael Joyce; and also Marquette University and the American Enterprise Institute, which both turned over to us space for all-day meetings during the year 1985-86, on those occasions fed us and paid for many costs.
Ideas really do have consequences. But they often take a long time to gestate and mature. One of the great satisfactions about working at a think tank is to watch this maxim at work, over and over again.
Published in First Things August 23, 2006