Social Programs: Slow But Sure is Better

IF the new administration in Washington really is made up of pragmatists, they will be struggling mightily to develop compromises among a number of conflicting goals: a ``kinder, gentler nation'' versus attacking the deficit; and the avoidance of new taxes versus making Mr. Bush ``the education president.'' To them I would submit a proposal - Safety Net II. Safety Net II would be a pragmatist's dream: a carefully worked out, bipartisan agreement to provide only the most basic human services to meet minimum but acceptable standards, using whatever methods work in the varying regions of the country.

Safety Net I, announced by Ronald Reagan in 1981 with the New Federalism, was not a serious attempt to safeguard basic services. Definitions were never agreed upon (e.g., what levels of which services were needed). Nor was the least bit of pragmatism shown in assuming that all state or local governments would or could provide even minimal services when the federal government backed away.

A set of minimum but acceptable standards would not please idealists of either extreme. It would, however, help to avoid one of the most wasteful aspects of the past 50 years of social legislation in the US - the recurring starts and stops of social programs. Extensive projects, built up during progressive periods, were crushed in 1946, in 1973, and again in the 1980s. Clearly, there never was enough bipartisan support for the building blocks to allow much of the structure to hold firm. These starts and stops have wasted human energy and helped to create a general climate of disillusionment, apathy, and cynicism among both those who need the services and those who feel some responsibility to provide them.

Other nations, with less enthusiasm and fewer funds, have had to build more gradually but often more lastingly. Canada and Great Britain, among others, have avoided many false starts and stops by aiming more realistically and striving for consensus on certain fundamental issues by floating ``white papers'' on each subject, thorough debate, and gradual implementation.

The majority of Americans, and both major parties, probably could agree on minimum but acceptable standards for food, shelter, health, the minimum wage, legal services, and education. We could probably agree that society, one way or another, should allow access to at least enough food to avoid outright malnutrition. Likewise, we would want enough affordable housing to allow access to the homeless if they so choose. We could agree on minimally acceptable health insurance being accessible to all, the chance for all children to be immunized, and all expectant mothers to have a reasonable level of prenatal care. We would have to agree with our Bill of Rights as to every American's right to legal counsel in criminal cases. And surely we would agree that the minimum wage should be high enough to allow someone working full-time to rise above the poverty level.

The problem is that after 50 years of social legislation, starting and stopping over and over, after all the energy and money spent, we have failed to meet such minimum standards. The minimum wage, not having risen since 1981, is insufficient for a full-time worker in a family of three or more to reach the poverty level. Thirty-two million Americans are poor, amounting to the highest poverty rate in 15 years. The gap between the haves and have-nots, the highest and lowest fifths of society, is wider now than at any time in 40 years.

Three million homeless - many of them children - are projected to increase, at current trends, to 19 million over the next 14 years. Thirty-seven million people have no health insurance - and most are working people without employee benefits. Another 20 million have insurance so inadequate that a major illness would ruin them. Nearly all senior citizens lack insurance for long-term nursing home or home care - unlike all the other industrialized nations of the world. Infant mortality in the US is the highest among major industrialized nations. Forty percent of toddlers are not fully immunized (66 percent in inner cities), and over one-third of all black women and 20 percent of all white women lack adequate prenatal care. Report after report documents the failings of public education in US cities. And there is both hunger and malnutrition in many parts of the country.

Failure to meet such minimum but acceptable standards is hardly inevitable. The US, surely, is capable of planning, debating, and building toward at least basic levels of services. Many of us feel we are capable of more than that, but improvements above the basics could come later, depending upon a change in budgetary priorities. Such extra goals and ways to attain them would certainly vary by political party. The starts and stops of such extra programs would not devastate us. The basics, however, should be tampered with no longer. We cannot avoid disillusionment, apathy, and cynicism unless we, as a society, keep past promises of ``liberty and justice for all,'' ``equality of opportunity,'' and ``the American dream.'' Nor will we ever have true peace or national security at home unless the worst of our injustices are eliminated. Nor will we be able to compete effectively abroad without a reasonably healthy and educated work force.

Now is the time for pragmatists to secure bipartisan agreement on minimum standards and to forge methods to meet those standards. Certainly private-public cooperative ventures could be tried and local governments and the states should be encouraged to do what they can and will. But real pragmatists would use the federal government where needed to fill the gaps.

What is needed first is a blueprint and timetable. It would shift current widespread cynicism toward some restoration of faith in government if a serious planning process were to identify past failures and successes, set attainable goals and objectives, and describe how and when gaps are to be filled. A well-debated, agreed-upon plan, one that above all else is just, could even generate the support needed to raise taxes.

To try to do more seems to result in a mental paralysis in Washington or, worse, the start-ups and closures of more waves of social programs. To do less is to make a mockery of American ideals, to further turn off the electorate, and to leave us vulnerable - intellectually, economically, and spiritually - in an increasingly competitive world.

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