Liberals and conservatives should put aside disagreements about the United States welfare system and refocus on ``measures to make adequate provision for families,'' says Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York. Renewing his call for a ``national family policy,'' the senator says the need is growing more urgent, especially for children. In 1983, nearly 1 in 4 preschoolers lived in families with incomes below the poverty line, he says.
In three lectures this week at Harvard University, the senator refocused on a trend that he first had observed 20 years ago -- a link between poverty and family structure.
In 1965 Senator Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor in the Johnson administration, released a report stating that the disintegration of black families was a major cause of poverty among blacks. But critics lambasted the report as racist, and a ``national family policy'' never emerged from it.
Today, the problem has broadened, crossing racial lines and affecting all families, Moynihan says. Half of all America's poor people live in single-parent families headed by women -- and the 1983 poverty rate for children in these households ``was much higher (56 percent) than that for children in other families (13.4 percent),'' he adds.
Still, the senator did not say a national family policy should emphasize the traditional family structure. Citing US Census Bureau projections, Moynihan said fewer than half the families formed between 1980 and 2000 will be ``traditional husband-wife families.''
In a panel discussion Tuesday, Harvard Prof. Glenn Loury of the Kennedy School of Government said the senator's presentation ``whetted my appetite, but left me somewhat dissatisfied.'' On one hand, Professor Loury said, Moynihan noted that poverty and family structure are inextricably linked. But on the other hand, the senator appeared ``unwilling'' to promote any type of family structure over another, Loury said. He suggested that political repercussions for ``taking a stand'' may not be as dramatic as politicians expect.
In reply, Moynihan noted the political difficulty of addressing family issues. Jimmy Carter, who ``talked more than any other president'' about strengthening the family, tried for 31/2 years to convene a conference on the subject, the senator noted. Even then, he noted, ``it was a conference on families, plural.''
In his first lecture Monday night, Moynihan said ``no government, however firm might be its wish otherwise, can avoid having policies that profoundly influence family relationships. . . . The only option is whether these will be purposeful, intended policies or whether they will be residual, derivative, concealed ones.''
Moynihan said a national family policy need not conjure up images of far-reaching programs, such as President Nixon's 1969 proposal to guarantee a minimum level of family income.
Instead, ``the essence of a family policy is that it focuses on the outcomes of other policies,'' he said. In this effort, Moynihan has identified ``common ground'' where Republicans and Democrats might meet to address needs of families and children. For example:
Increase tax exemptions for dependents. The value of the income-tax exemption for spouses and children has eroded during the past 35 years. In 1948 more than 75 percent of median family income was exempt from federal tax. In 1983, less than one-third of median family income was exempt. ``The costs of raising a family no longer bear any relationship to the amount of income not subject to federal tax,'' Moynihan said.
Adjust welfare aid for children. Since 1960, all the federal entitlement programs -- for veterans, for retired people, for the disabled -- were adjusted for inflation. The single exception is the entitlement program for children, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).
Establish uniform standards for child welfare aid. AFDC is administered by states, and benefits vary dramatically across the nation. ``A child in Mississippi is just as deserving as a child in Vermont,'' Moynihan said.
Support programs that work. One example is Head Start, a voluntary education program for preschoolers, Moynihan said. It has the support of Democrats and Republicans -- and survived President Reagan's early budget cuts.
But Moynihan acknowledged that a bipartisan consensus will be difficult to achieve. Indeed, part of his lecture rebutted the idea that welfare programs actually contribute to poverty -- a view Moynihan believes Reagan has embraced.
In the end, he said, data about social trends are inadequate to form a national family policy. Too little is known about causes for rising divorce rates, the increasing number of teen-age pregnancies, and other changes in the family.
``To the extent there is such, family policy must reflect shared values,'' Moynihan said. Even if Americans can't agree what constitutes a family, he said, perhaps they can agree that a father who leaves the home needs to be held more responsible for his children.