Commentary

When Fashionable Rhetoric Fails

A Vigorous Social Role for the Federal Government

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The future of our society depends absolutely on the broad development of all our people, and especially of our children, irrespective of race, sex, economic status, or any other consideration. Investment in such things as nutrition, health, housing, and education--for the poor as well as the more affluent--is, therefore, not only a matter of social justice but of practical necessity. Failure to appreciate this fundamental truth is more dangerous for this nation than any alleged missile gap or other shortcoming in armaments.

But today, it is clear beyond any doubt that efforts are under way to bring about a profound change in the social policies of the nation and the social role of the federal government.

No longer are the government's taxing and spending powers to be used as a means to achieve social equity or as a mechanism for the redistribution of income. No longer are they to be used to try to ameliorate the effects of poverty and discrimination or to solve social problems. No longer are they to be used for the broad development of all the nation's human resources. Government, it is claimed, can accomplish those purposes better by promoting economic growth and by reducing inflation.

This, of course, is an attractive proposition to those who are not poor because it offers the prospect of reduced taxes. Suddenly, it seems that a magic way has been discovered to meet the nation's social needs without anyone having to meet the cost. That is pure self-delusion.

Economic growth has never by itself guaranteed that the necessary investment will be made in broad human-resource development. Nor has such growth ever raised substantial numbers of those at the bottom of society out of poverty. The metaphor of all the boats rising with the tide may be good imagery, but it is poor social analysis, and it will be even poorer in the type of economy we can expect in the future, where there will be little or no opportunity for the unskilled or for those suffering the varied debilitating effects of prolonged social deprivation.

The argument is also made that the states can meet society's needs better than the federal government. However, only if the states receive sums of money from Washington equivalent to what it would have spent, with strict instructions that those funds are to be used for the same purposes, will this be possible. But on neither count is that the intent.

The predictable result will be that the states with the most resources and the greatest sense of social obligation will do the best they can. Many states, on the other hand, will do little or nothing to take up the slack, thereby compounding the already existing problem of the inequitable treatment of some Americans simply because of their place of residence.

Many contend that the business sector, foundations, voluntary organizations, and churches can make up the shortfall in federal dollars. Frankly, this claim is ridiculous to someone who is well informed about the entire field of philanthropy.

These groups are of enormous importance and are essential to a healthy society, but they do not have the capacity even to begin to substitute for the federal role. Indeed, as federal programs are cut, many of the nation's most valuable voluntary organizations, which have depended heavily on federal support, are seeing their capacity to provide services to the needy disappear. They are, thus, in the position of being asked to do more by the same Administration that is simultaneously weakening their viability as organizations.

In short, there simply is no feasible way for the federal government to transfer its social role elsewhere in the society without causing a national abdication of responsibilities that we have no choice but to meet if we are to have a prosperous and secure future. Amid all the rhetoric about the alleged mischief inherent in the federal government's role in social issues, this is a central reality of which we cannot afford to lose sight. Today, more than 11 million workers are unemployed and huge deficits are anticipated in the federal budget for the next few years. Under such depressed economic conditions, further cuts in social programs have had to be made by the Congress. And, again, the principle sacrifices have been made by the poor.

One can see now that the nation is at a fork in the road. If it goes down one path, this will be the guiding philosophy: A federal social role is wrong in principle and cannot, in any event, be afforded if we are to retain a strong defense capability. It must, therefore, be reduced, if not totally eliminated. There will be a legitimate social role for the states if they choose to exercise it, but, essentially, a growing economy will largely obviate the need for public provision of social services by making it possible for virtually all families to purchase them privately out of their earnings. The federal taxing and spending power should be used for no other social purpose than basic social insurance and the provision of assistance to the "deserving poor"--those who qualify by virtue of old age, illness, or physical handicap.

If the nation goes down the other path, the guiding philosophy will be equally clear but totally different. The basic assumption will be that the federal social role is entirely legitimate--indeed, mandated in the general welfare clause of the Constitution--and that it should be reinstated as soon as possible and even, perhaps, expanded into new areas of need.

Further, the assumption will be that no matter how buoyant the economy becomes, there will always be a sizable group in society whose members must receive public assistance if they are to live decently and if their children are to have an equal chance in life. Finally, it will be assumed that, since a vigorous social role by the national government is fundamental to the maintenance of a stable society and to the development of its human resources and, hence, its security, the country will give the social role the priority necessary for it to be fully funded.

While conceding that there are very powerful, well-financed interests working to see that the nation continues to go down the first of these two roads, sooner or later, and probably sooner, the nation will revert to the second road.

I say this because down the first road there lies nothing but increasing hardship for ever-growing numbers, a mounting possibility of severe social unrest, and the consequent development among the upper classes and the business community of sufficient fear for the survival of our capitalist economic system to bring about an abrupt change of course. Just as we built the general welfare state in the 1930's and expanded it in the 1960's as a safety valve for the easing of social tension, so will we do it again in the 1980's. Any other path is simply too risky.

It would, of course, be fine if the free-enterprise system were functioning in a way that ensured equality of opportunity for all, employment at decent wages for everyone who wanted to or needed to work, and a distribution of economic rewards sufficiently equitable to meet basic standards of fairness. But, unfortunately, as well as our modified capitalist system serves most of us, it serves some of our fellow citizens very poorly.

Because their lives have been blighted by such misfortunes as racial or sexual discrimination; poor nutrition; lack of medical care; inferior schooling; and substandard housing in dangerous, depressed neighborhoods, these citizens are simply unequipped to compete in the type of post-industrial society that we have today and will have increasingly in the future.

One of the purposes behind the expansion of the general welfare state in the 1960's and early 1970's was to remove the barriers that inhibited the upward mobility of disadvantaged Americans and to help at least some of them reach a point where their further progress would be self-sustaining. With all its faults, this was an undertaking characterized by hope, dignity, and compassion. And in many cases it did work.

Now, we are abandoning this strategy for harsh policies that deny assistance to many who need it desperately, that take support away from people who have the will to succeed but need some help, and that shift the blame for misfortune from society to the victims.

It is possible, of course, that the majority of Americans--those of us who live comfortable, secure lives--will be able to abide the contradiction of poverty and human misery amid plenty, our consciences dulled by facile rationalizations of one kind or another.

We did, after all, live for much of our history as a nation with legalized segregation of the races and with discrimination against women. We were content to allow some 20 percent of our people to live in poverty until as late as the 1960's. We permitted all kinds of injustice to endure while giving lip service to a Constitution that prohibits it. And these, alas, are evils to which we are now returning in the name of "getting the government out of our lives."

Vol. 02, Issue 22, Page 24

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