Capitol Hill Cassandra


A Personal History of Social Policy

By Daniel Patrick Moynihan Harvard -- 245pp -- $22.95

This book arrives a few months too late to influence the debate over welfare reform, so let's just hope its message is wrong. In it, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) predicts that "hundreds of thousands of children" are about to be "blown to the winds" by the "welfare repeal" that President Clinton signed into law last August. Unfortunately, it's likely that he's right. He has been all too right over the past 30 years in predicting bad news about U.S. social policy.

But if recent history is a guide, Moynihan's warnings on welfare, health care, and economic policy won't be much noticed in Washington. He lost the chairman's microphone at the Senate Finance Committee when Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. And despite his 20 years in the Senate, his 16 books, and his standing as one of the Senate's few legitimate intellectuals, he is regarded warily at the White House. The youngsters there view him rather as a cantankerous great-uncle who shows up for dinner once in a while to bellow unwelcome advice to all.

In fact, the White House staff has reason to distrust the independent-minded Moynihan, and this provocative book certainly won't change their opinions of him. Miles to Go repeatedly skewers the Administration for its efforts to rewrite federal health and welfare programs.

For example, the white-haired heretic contends that the phony health-care "crisis" was largely imagined by a few health professionals and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who convened a "500-member secret task force" to recast one-seventh of the American economy in the government's image. After all, Moynihan notes, five out of six Americans have health insurance, most of the poor get it free, and the elderly receive subsidized care. As for health-care inflation, Moynihan writes: "We were being asked to stop everything to cope with a crisis that was seemingly resolving itself" through the workings of the free market.

Moynihan finds much to criticize among all Democrats. They are filled with hubris and "ideological certainty," he maintains. Clinton "won by default as much as anything, but set out to govern as if he had a mandate for all manner of governing." Meanwhile, the Republicans were "becoming the party of ideas," as congressional Democrats were stuck defending the status quo.

Pegged as a neoliberal, a neoconservative, and an independent during a career that has included service during four Administrations, two of them Republican, Moynihan reserves his strongest criticism for unnamed "liberals." It was they who first denied the problem that Moynihan identified in 1965: that divorce and out-of-wedlock births were imperiling the black family. The former Harvard University professor notes that, over the years, liberals have tried first to pretend that the problem didn't exist--and then to maintain that single parenthood was somehow chic. Today, he has been vindicated by broad recognition of the terrible and growing trend. Around 25% of babies born to white mothers are illegitimate--a rate slightly higher than that of blacks back when Moynihan first raised the matter. Among black mothers, out-of-wedlock births now hover around 70%.

These rising numbers, Moynihan says, define the current welfare crisis. Hence, he believes that the most recent effort to treat the problem was merely a political ploy--"boob bait for the bubbas." He makes a compelling case that it will do more harm than good: The theory behind the welfare-reform bill was that "ending welfare would make the lives of illegitimate babies so unendurable that mothers would forbear to bear more." But here's the rub: Two-thirds of the people receiving welfare payments are themselves under 18, and their behavior isn't likely to be affected by such punitive measures.

The GOP takes its licks in the chapters on economics, which aren't as interesting as those on social policy. All this ground has been plowed before: President Reagan created the deficits with his 1981 tax cut, which was supposed to produce even more revenue, according to supply-side economic theory. When that failed to materialize, the resulting shortfall became an argument for smaller government. Reagan, however, was unwilling to specify budget cuts and fight for them, allowing the problem to worsen. Today, the budget would be balanced if it weren't for the interest payments on $5 trillion in past debts, most of that accumulated during GOP Administrations.

More interesting are Moynihan's observations about drugs. He traces the problem, again, to the breakup of the family and the deviancy it encourages. We are choosing, by our policy of prohibition, to "have an intense crime problem concentrated among minorities," whose drug use is driven by economic deprivation and despair. Legalization, on the other hand, would create an enormous public-health problem, he says. Therefore, "it may be that drug addiction is one of the problems government simply cannot solve."

Miles to Go has some obvious deficiencies. It doesn't address the fiscal problems of Social Security and Medicare. Will today's retirees be the last to enjoy such benefits? Moynihan doesn't say. Should we guarantee all children access to health care by expanding Medicaid? What about students' declining academic performance? And why was Moynihan's voice so little heard during the recent welfare-reform debate? All are questions that Moynihan doesn't answer. Still, given his track record in predicting entropy in America's most important institutions and government programs, the warnings Moynihan provides are sufficient to make the book an important one.

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