Franklin Thomas

Human Decency … What Does it Cost?

VTR Date: November 23, 1985

Guest: Thomas, Franklin


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Franklin Thomas
Title: “Human Decency: What Does it Cost?”
Original VTR: 11-23-85

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today is Franklin Thomas, President of the Ford Foundation. Now, when Mr. Thomas last sat at this table almost four years ago, Ronald Reagan had been in office just over a hear. Although the president had said that even as he attempted to cut spending on social programs, he would keep in place a safety net for the less fortunate among us, still there wasn’t much question that a seed change was taking place in the way that this nation would handle its problems concerning it’s needy. Severe limits were to be imposed upon the then continuously rapid growth of government serves in this area. Well, that’s happened now, and more. Not drastically enough for some, too much for others. And given expectations that had long since risen, given an almost all-pervasive American sense of entitlement, but question remains: How much government can afford not to bear the brunt of not supporting its less fortunate citizens without seeming to break the social contract that, right or wrong, seems to prevail in our times, without shattering the public peach, without tearing apart the often fragile social fabric that has kept us largely at peach with each other in this rich nation?

Now, four years ago Franklin Thomas said, It is not inevitable that government grow meaner as it grows leaner>” Maybe not, but I want to him if it has. What do you think?

Thomas: Well, clearly the past four years have seen a major shift in responsibility from the federal government to the states and local governments and to the private sector. The adjustments being made at the state and local level to take account of this increased responsibility have really not been adequately tracked across the country so that it is not clear at this moment how well the various states and localities have in fact adjusted to this expanded responsibility on their part. What does seem clear is that there are enormous innovations going on across the country, at the state and local level, within communities, as they struggle to adjust to the diminished federal role in providing social services, social welfare, and a presence which many had come to both expect and need. At the same time, the federal shift has not been as drastic as the rhetoric surrounding it and the initial proposals of the president would have led one to believe.

Heffner: In what areas has it been most drastic?

Thomas: Well, it’s been most drastic in its support for agencies based in communities working where problems are most directly experienced and trying to do something about those problems. So your community development corporations across the country, this network of extraordinary people who have come together in an effort to try and correct the housing needs in their communities, to provide social services for those with the community who need those services provided, they have found a diminution in the general support they had experienced from the federal government. They have had to reduce the sizes of their organizations, they’ve had to scramble for new resources, they’ve had to find ways of starting to generate income from the provision of some of the services they had been in the business of providing in the past. Without question those persons who were dependent upon those local agencies for support have experienced some diminution in the services provided them. The extent of that diminution, not clear as of the moment. Efforts are underway to try to track and assess and evaluate that impact.


The field of education, the cutbacks on federal aid to education significant burdens being felt, particularly among minority youngsters wanting to go on to higher education. Again, another of the paradoxes of this is that despite the cuts there is still more money available than most people realize is available, and in a real sense the initiative necessary to ferret out the resources available to support education has itself diminished because of a pervasive sense that there is no money around. Part of the challenge for those of us who work in these fields is to try and document the reality of what has happened, including the adjustments being made at the state and local level to counterbalance the most severe effects of the changes. And also to remind people how to continue to make effective demands on their government and to take advantage of what has been a shift in the source of funds, a decline in the amount of funds available, but not a total removal of those funds.

Heffner: Mr. Thomas, you used the word “rhetoric” before. You said that the cuts haven’t been as severe as the rhetoric would indicate. Turning that around a bit, would the, what you have said now, the impact hasn’t been tracked. If the impact were horrendous, if it were overwhelming, the tracking really would have taken place. It would have been so clear to see, wouldn’t it?

Thomas: It’s hard to know. We tend, you know, to respond to anecdote and episodes and horror stories. They intrude onto our consciousness, they stay for a short while, and tend to fade. It is not clear that the burden people suffer, the pain they bear, the injustices visited upon them, necessarily lend themselves to the anecdotal, episodic nature of the way we ten to report and become aware of these developments. So that it doesn’t follow in my mind that the absence of reports documenting and detailing the horror stories across a broad spectrum means that those horror stories and those changes do not exist. We need a systematic approach to trying to find out the answer to that question.

Heffner: But, let me ask. You’re experienced in this area. Your direction of the Bed-Sty arrangement which was so successful over so many years gives you an insight into this that very few people have. If you had to make a bet, what kind of bet would you make on the fact, on the effect of the fact of some considerable federal cutbacks?

Thomas: Oh, no question, yes. There has been a significant cutback in federal support. That would be the assertion based on the budget numbers themselves. The questions of what adjustments people have made to the fact of those cutbacks is a question worthy of some serious exploration and discussion. And the reason I say that is not just to be able to answer the question for this point in time, but it seems to me that our nation is going through a fundamental reassessment of the nature of the social contract. That is, what are the appropriate expectations we have of government, who should be helped in what way, and by whom? In order to adequately address that fundamental question, we need more information about who is currently being helped, who needs help but is not new being helped or not being helped adequately, and at which levels of government, which arena, whether governmental or private, should the assistance come from? That examination, it seems to me, is as basis as anything we are going to face as a nation. And it is inevitably, no matter whose in the White House, because of the pervasive budget deficits that we have and the fact that we cannot continue as a nation to be in the deficit position we are in. The obvious pools from which we can attempt to balance this budget over time relate to defense, relate to the welfare programs, and relate directly to social security. Those are the big pots of money in the society and in the budget. There is a need to examine where the political world is, what the values are that we share and on which we base our decisions as to who will be helped in what way and by whom.

Heffner: It’s interesting, when you mention that you talk about the values. Going back to the guild hall lectures that you gave in ’82, you said, it was so taking, “The ultimate significance of the great society was that it placed non-material national goals on a par with the material needs of disadvantaged groups.” So that whatever one finds in terms of the statistics of poverty, of well-being, on the other hand, you see some other necessity for government.


Thomas: No question. I mean, part of what government is about is trying to assist a people in their efforts to sort out the terms and conditions under which they will live together in relative peach and security. If you take a democratic society such as we have, a free enterprise society, the only way, it seems to me, we can justify the differential position of people in our society, the amount of wealth they have, the amount of income they have, the different styles in which they live, where few have a lot and many have some and some have very little, is if we are in fact a society in which opportunity exists and a realistic prospect for people to change and improve their circumstance exists in our society. That’s part of the understanding we have with one another which keeps us from becoming lawless and taking what we think we want and are entitled to from someone else who has it.

Heffner: That fluidity, that mobility in society, do you think now on the surface that there is the same degree as there was lets say four or eight or ten years ago?

Thomas: Well, my personal belief is that we are in a serious point in time with respect to that fluidity. And we’re in that in part because there is a growing sense in the inner cities of our country that the national government, which really is the place to which we look and have looked historically to right imbalances which exist on local levels and among those who compete for resources, that the national government is perceived to be saying that we want a level playing field where everyone scrambles to achieve as much as he or she can in accordance with the rules, but where we take no account of the history of discrimination, the history of deprivation, the history of inequality which our nation has experienced. Wonderful philosophy, if in fact everyone started the game with the same opportunity. We didn’t start the game with the same opportunity in this society. And in order to get beyond race, in order to get beyond discrimination, you have to take account of the discrimination, which has existed and to some extent still exists in our society. You cannot have a level playing field without first seeking to help everyone get up to the starting gate.

Heffner: You quoted Lyndon Johnson about the hubbies of history. Weren’t quite his words, but they were yours. And you spoke in your guildhall lecture very strongly for affirmative action. Seemingly in our time affirmative action is not a phrase that’s embraced as warmly as it was in the time of the great society. How do you explain that?


Thomas: Well, I think it’s in part an outgrowth of an ideology along the lines I was alluding to a moment ago which says whenever you reach out to confer a benefit on a particular group or individual, you deprive another group or individual of something that group or that individual felt entitled to. And therefore, it’s a form of reverse discrimination and inconsistent with a non-discriminatory philosophy. That notion, that premise, that ideology has begun to be played out in the language and in the actions emanating from our justice department, emanating from the highest officials in our country. It seems to me that one consequence of that development on the national level has been a growing sense among some who had reservations about affirmative action, had reservations about the notion of helping someone whom the society had deliberately held back get on his or her feet to come forth and begin to openly talk about those reservations and to make assertions that ten of 15 years ago would have made one feel embarrassed to assert. An example on a contemporary basis is the – and this is not an affirmative action case, but it goes to the point of philosophy and attitude – is what has been reported the last couple of days going on in Philadelphia. With two families, one black, one interracial family, who purchased a home in a predominately white section of the city, and where resident of that are, 300 to 400 of them at a time have been demonstrating outside the homes of these two families demanding that they abandon their homes. And the reason for that set of demands as expressed by the reports in the press is that “we don’t want to live in the same neighborhood with people who are a different color from ourselves. We don’t know anything about those families, we don’t have anything against those families. But we don’t want to live in the same neighborhood with them because it will lower the property values, our children will have to have contact with them.” A state of emergency has been declared in that city by the major. It seems to me that the notion that you have the right and the power as a citizen to deprive someone else of an opportunity to live and work and do as he or she chooses and is able to afford, is alien to the fundamental values on which our society wants to base itself and wants to live and I think needs if we’re going to not only have peach and relative tranquility at home, but be a leading nation in the world community setting an example based on civil and political liberties of how people of different cultures can come together.

Heffner: But Mr. Thomas, one has to make a guess. I think you’ve made yours. But you have to make a guess as to what you’re describing now is the exception to the rule, or were those years ten years or so when there seemed to be a great cry, great quest for social justice in this nation, were those years the exception? Or are these? Because what you describe is not peculiar to one city, one state, on part of this country.

Thomas: It’s hard to think of what I just described as the rule. I think what I’m trying to get at…

Heffner: Excuse me. Hard? Difficult? Something you don’t want to thing, or something that flies in the face of our history?

Thomas: Well, it’s hard to make the call, to be convinced of whether it’s the rule or the exception. My belief is, and I tried to say it in a couple of the lectures you allude to, is that these instincts exists, that is the instinct to embrace and be generous and be democratic exists alongside an instinct to exclude, to discriminate and to be mean-spirited. And part of what we have to continue to try and achieve in the country is a climate which encourages the majority of our people to let the instinct for communication, for openness, for accommodation prevail over the instinct for exclusion and meanness. And that’s where the attitudes and the pronouncements coming from high counsels in our country are critically important. It really does, I believe, influence the individual’s belief of what is acceptable behavior and conduct.

There is one additional point on the Philadelphia example that I think goes to this item. The emergency order says that no more than three or four persons may congregate in and about the premises or the homes of the families in question. There was a news report on the radio today that in fact clusters in numbers greater than three or four were seen outside the houses, and one of the demonstrators, a young man in his twenties, was interviewed and asked why he was there in light of the existing order. And his response was, “three or four police cars have gone by. They’ve seen us here. They haven’t said or done anything about our being here, so we don’t have to worry about the ruling.”


Heffner: Benign neglect?

Thomas: Or worse.

Heffner: You know, summoning up the better angels of our nature is not given to many leaders. It seems you’re saying that it isn’t happening now that the kind of leadership we need to, you see side by side the better nature of man and that we wish to turn away from, you would wish to turn away from. What indication is there now that that better nature, those better angels will be summoned up?

Thomas: Well, I think there is, the basis for hope is that I believe it is in our collective best interests to pursue the summoning up of the better angel. And I think that the process of trying to lead this nation and lead it in its various subdivisions will compel those in a leadership position to take account of the consequences of their own pronouncements in a way that, at least as I see things, has not happened adequately today. And it means brining it to people’s attention, it means making them aware at a time when so many issues want to crowd these fundamental concerns out of the way that it takes a monumental effort to bring back to the center of attention these givens, these essentials which unless we have and hold on to and promote actively will really erode the security of the person, the security of our communities, and the security of the nation.

Heffner: Seemingly, though at the very moment that there has been some erosion of the spirit you have referred to, that better side of our nature, seemingly there is political triumph after political triumph for those who seem to be the victims of that erosion or the perpetrators of that erosion.

Thomas: Well, I think that’s a…

Heffner: No?

Thomas: …short-term phenomenon if it’s… I really am fundamentally a believer in the power of this nation and its ethic to pull the extremes towards the middle. And that middle is a pretty good middle. We just have to keep reminding ourselves of what its essential are. The pull towards the middle occurs in part through the processes of government itself. It occurs in part through the role of a free press. It occurs in part through the struggles that individual human beings go through as they encounter and experience life. It does seem to me that you cannot maintain the mean-spirited side of this equation and have any sustained hope for the future of the nation. We all have and want to have great hope for the future of the nation. So my belief is that as we bring these matters to our collective attention, as we demonstrate repeatedly how the adjustments can be made, how the better side of our natures can be brought forth that in fact it too can become the rule in much the way that a resort to the mean spirit can sometimes become a rule.

Heffner: You know, the interesting thing is that there seems to be some hint that we can cut back without quite the damage that the liberal rhetoric, to turn it around now, seemed to indicate at the beginning of the Reagan terms in office. Is that unfair?


Thomas: No, I don’t think that’s unfair at all. In think in fact, if you look at the way the budgets have in fact come out of the Congress in comparison to the way they looked at the time of initial submission by the administration, you have seen enormous adjustments going on. But I think all of those adjustments include some recognition that the rate of growth of expenditure on the domestic budget side had to be arrested. The question of where you were going to focus your attention and how you were going to allocate those reduced funds across areas of need, those were questions on which sharp differences occurred. But on the fundamental question, was there a need to arrest the growth of the domestic budget, I think there has been a recognition of that, and also a recognition that it can be done, not without some pain, but certainly with less than a tragedy for the millions of people in need in the country.

Heffner: Of course, when Senator Moynihan sat at this table not so long ago, he did see tragedy, he did see tragedy in terms of what’s happening to our children. He said amazingly we have come rather well to take care of our older population, thrusting aside the notion that perhaps because they vote, but that we’re not doing that for our children, indeed, they are more and more disadvantaged.

Thomas: Well, there is a growing segment of our population, and it has been a growing segment for the last five to six years at least, which is less and less able to participate in the opportunities that exist in this society, and that includes the youngsters who are dropping out of school, who are underemployed, the children being born to children themselves who are not getting adequate nutrition, adequate intellectual stimulation, adequate preparation for their own needs to compete and to succeed in the society. Part of that is a lack of funds. Part of it is also a lack of knowledge of how to most effectively apply those funds. Beyond Head Start, which is a clear success and is by every measure something we should accelerate, the issue of how to effectively intervene in the teen pregnancy arena and the like, that requires enormous though and investigation.

Heffner: And I’m glad that you and the Ford Foundation are giving it that though and investigation. Thanks so much Franklin Thomas.

And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hop you’ll join us again next time here on The Open Mind. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Goodnight, and good luck.”