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Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Of Ideas and Politics, Part II

VTR Date: July 13, 1985

Guest: Moynihan, Daniel Patrick


VTR: JULY 13, 1985

HEFFNER: I’m Richard Heffner your host on THE OPEN MIND. Joining me once again today is a man who has worked for four American presidents, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford. Who has written and lectured extensively, has taught at Harvard, was our Ambassador first to India then to the United Nations. Is eminently one of that most interesting breed, the professor in politics. Is variously and sometimes even simultaneously embraced both by liberals and by conservatives. Well now, Daniel Patrick Moynihan is surely one of the most interesting members of the United States Senate and I do want to welcome him here once again. Say, Senator Moynihan, you know last time on our other program I was going to begin with domestic matters and we got onto or I took us onto the world outside and we never really left it. So I’m determined to point out that over the years here on THE OPEN MIND there have been a number of people who have, to my surprise, said Americans don’t really care all that much about their children. And I thought that was a lie. Not the truth. An exaggeration. But when I read your fascinating Godkin Lectures at Harvard in the Spring of 1985 I couldn’t help but think that you had struck that same note that we Americans are so careless of our children. That so many of them now live in poverty and perhaps the prophesy must be that even more will in the rest of this century. How do you explain that?

MOYNIHAN: Dick, I’m not sure I have the capacity to explain it, but after a good quarter century or more being involved with the question, I think I can begin to measure it, quantify it, to use that term. And to see the change over a quarter century is chilling. I ran, second time 1982, and election was over, and had a couple months with nothing much to do, the Senate was out and …

HEFFNER: What a nice thought.

MOYNIHAN: Nice thought. And I thought I’d see if I could still do any marginally respectable research and I’d been wondering about something. I’m on the Senate Finance Committee, and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Social Security which handles the AFDC program which we think of as welfare. The AFDC it’s … (inaudible) … and social security. And was wondering we know … (inaudible) … how many children or recipients of this kind of welfare but what about over their childhood, how many children are. And we worked out, the census is wonderful for these things, and some folks out at Princeton are very good, and we tried to do something historical. We tried to produce an equation of different components that accurately would predict the number of children who, born in 1940, who were recipients of welfare before they turned 18. Then 1950, then 1960, and then part of 1970. So that we could make a forecast for 1980. And it was startling. We could say with real confidence that 32% of the children born in 1980 would be on welfare before they were 18. A third of our children. After a half-century of enormous economic growth. After two centuries’ economic growth we have a higher experience of dependency … usually in a female headed family than probably anytime in our history. And I mean going back to the time when people died of cholera and mine disasters and being kicked by horses and yellow fever of a century ago. It’s not that far back, that you get that kind of random breaking up of family units because of disease and death. Nothing like it. And it’s all happened in a generation. You can make a competent statement that one out of every two children born today will live in a single parent family before they are 18. And the other thing … that having found that I got fooling around with some other stuff and came upon the most startling fact. On the one hand a great success and the other a great failure. Richard Heffner, we have almost abolished poverty among the aged in the United States.

HEFFNER: I’m glad you’re telling me that and picking me out and making me feel older.

MOYNIHAN: Well I’m looking a little grey haired too. But the combination of social security and, well, social security benefits and just income retirement benefits and Medicare … medical benefits have brought the incidence of poverty among persons over 65 down to 3% which is really pretty marginal. I’m not saying they’re all doing wonderfully well, but that’s a great achievement. No society in history can, as big as we are, can claim to have done anything like that. Simultaneously, the incidence of poverty among our children goes up and up and up. Today by that same measure which we set up in 1964 … Molley Orchansky was then … and HEW figured it out … the poverty standard, if anybody wants to know out there, is just amount of money three times what the Department of Agriculture minimum food budget for a family of four is. They just multiply it by three. And it’s a stable record and standard. 22 ½ percent of the children today are poor. That means four times the rate of poverty for children under 18 is four times that for people over 65. When I said 22 ½ percent, you have to take care of some in-kind benefits which averages out four-to-one old as against young. If you take the children under six, the very young, they are six times more likely to be poor than a person over 65 is. And that’s just turning the world upside down.

HEFFNER: Of course there are those who have said that this incredible statistic that you use … and I was so interested to note that the Godkin Lectures in which you set forth the statistics were picked up just about every place … I saw editorial comments in Chicago, in the South, in the Los Angeles papers, in Dallas, everywhere. Clearly, you struck some nerve there. Now there are those who say that this is because, not despite of, but because of the efforts we have made over this past generation to bring about a war against poverty. And I wonder what your response is to that.

MOYNIHAN: Well, sure. And first of all, the people who raise that question raise a legitimate question. I stand here and say to you I cannot explain this event. And when others come along and say I have an explanation, I welcome them to the discussion. I’d like to see their proof. I’d like to see their evidence. I’d like to see their casual sequences. But welcome to this argument, this discussion. I was … the great difficulty the last two decades is that we have blanked it out. It has been a subject not talked about like sex at Victorian dinner tables or whatever.

HEFFNER: Our dirty little secret.

MOYNIHAN: Our dirty little secret. My first order response to that proposition is that I can show, and I think in fairness I did show 20 years ago, that these trends were rather strikingly in place. These things were happening. I thought I knew why. I was a young Assistant Secretary of Labor in the administration of President Kennedy. And I was Assistant Secretary for Policy Planning and Research and was looking around for aspects of the question of unemployment which would make a case for doing more about it. And a legitimate thing to do if it is your job to do.

HEFFNER: Except that may have been the trouble, that you were looking about for things to do about the problem.

MOYNIHAN: Well I thought I had found something. I could find a very strong relationship between male unemployment and child dependency. AFDC new cases. That word correlation which is … not everybody including myself can spell but you can always understand it. How does one number relate to another. We had a correlation between the male unemployment rate and the number of new AFDC cases on a month-by-month basis from 1947, when these unemployment figures begin, to 1960 of .91 which is very high. It says about 80% of one phenomenon can be described by another. Then it disappeared on me.

HEFFNER: What do you mean it disappeared?

MOYNIHAN: It disappeared. It just went boom.

HEFFNER: No correlation?

MOYNIHAN: The correlation vanished. There … you and I are professors in our time … among statisticians this is known as … some statisticians have referred to this as Moynihan’s scissors. It’s a … no just a … the curse that went up and down together … something crossed like that and one went one way and the other went another way as if they had no relationship to each other whatever. And that is when I said and went to President Johnson, who was then an out-president, we got a problem here. And I can’t explain it, Mr. President. I cannot explain it. I can tell you if I thought I could explain it I would have just been sending you or have the Secretary, the Department of Secretary of Labor, sending you memorandums saying we need more manpower training, we need more job creation. I don’t know what’s going on, but something very serious is going on. Families are breaking up. Children are becoming dependent. Now the programs that didn’t necessarily follow because of this particular matter, but it had something to do with the OEO efforts and things like that, they came after these trends were in place. So in logic you have a problem of saying how did something that really only took hold say in 1969, 70, 71, cause events that were clearly in place by 1961 and 1962.

HEFFNER: But the only trouble with that is we’re really talking about, and I couldn’t spell this, exacerbate. We’re really talking about increasing and fostering the trends that you’re talking about. And that’s what really needs explanation.

MOYNIHAN: Yah. And it’s … I will say to those who disapprove of the proposition that our efforts to do something about the problem only made it worse, that if they don’t approve of that, they have to disprove it. I think it can be. I don’t think the … the simple fact is the much heralded war on poverty that Lyndon Johnson got going, actually President Kennedy started it. Can I give you a little bit of history I don’t think I’ve ever seen in place?

HEFFNER: Please.

MOYNIHAN: There was a little committee that was formed in 1963 in the White House to ask what should be a major theme of President Kennedy’s 1964 campaign? And at that time he sort of thought Nelson Rockefeller would be his opponent. And I was a New Yorker and had served in Governor Harriman’s administration for four years and kind of knew about New York. And so I had a little bit … I’d be called in once in a while. Not a member of the committee but I’d check in with it. They had two questions. The leading candidates. One was, should we discuss the problems of the suburbs or should we discuss poverty. It was that, you know, kind of well, what will we do for a theme? Well, poverty went out because the President had never forgotten his encounter in Appalachia. He had never … there were seven, only seven, primaries in 1960. The seventh and most important was when this Irish Catholic from Massachusetts ran in Protestant West Virginia. And won. Beat Hubert Humphrey. And the things he saw in those hollows and those coal towns, you know. He didn’t know people lived like that. And first thing we did in the poverty program was set up the Appalachian Regional Commission since abolished by our enlightened Congress today. And we got a program going but almost simultaneously the war in Southeast Asia began to attract, to require, and consume President Johnson’s attention. And there was much more sound than there was substance to all those programs.

HEFFNER: You know that interests me so, Senator, because again over the years guests sitting right where you are sitting now I’ve asked over and over again maybe this time there will be a positive correlation between the enthusiasm of the guest and the answer, a positive answer. Did we then lose our nerve? Was it not the fault of the notion of a war on poverty? But did we not go far enough? Was there a stop brought thanks to Viet Nam? Was the problem not that we did have a policy of intervention, but that we didn’t fulfill the promise of that policy? And I think you’re probably in a very good position to give an answer to that.
MOYNIHAN: I can tell you the answer, and I can describe the moment it happened. I think it was March 2nd or something like that about 10:30 in the morning. It was a Cabinet meeting. Sargent Shriver is head of the task force on poverty and Adam Yarmolinsky and I went to the cabinet meeting. He was … and President Johnson was there. And Shriver was asked to the … sit at the table opposite the President. We sat behind him and described this new program. And he said we had educational programs, some job training programs, some medical programs, but our main proposal was a major employment program which we wanted to finance by a five-cent increase in the tobacco tax, cigarette tax. Lyndon Johnson looked across at Sargent Shriver and says, you don’t understand, this is an election year. We are cutting taxes. We are not raising taxes. And well, that was our central proposal so community action and other things were there but … well Shriver went to go to the next part of his presentation. Lyndon Johnson … (inaudible) … pressed a button he had down there that said …

HEFFNER: Trap door?

MOYNIHAN: No. It said Coke Cola or Pepsi or whatever. He had about five drinks he liked. And then … but he also had a telephone. He picked up the telephone. And he started talking on the telephone. And there was Shriver opposite the President. The President was making a telephone call. So it was over. And the rest of the Cabinet seeing this happen before so they they would sort of … (inaudible) … and encouraged him a bit, you know. It was over before it began in that regard. Which isn’t to say there weren’t good things come of it. Head Start. We learned a lot about preschool education. We have learned a lot. And one of the things we learned is it’s damned hard. All right. That’s not the worst thing to find out about the world.

HEFFNER: Did we learn that we could really bring about positively without too many negatives involved, bring about social change? You’ve argued for a long, long time about the need for family policy. Have the past two and one-half decades demonstrated to you that it is indeed possible for us efficiently, effectively and again without too many of the down side attributes to do something as a nation with government that would bring about the kinds of changes that you want brought about? That would enable us to remove children from the plight we now find them in?

MOYNIHAN: Well, can I first say that social change is a very mysterious subject. And anybody who sets out to do it through government better have … it’s for the long-winded or rather for people with good staying powers if you know what I mean.

HEFFNER: I thought you meant for politicians when you talked about long-winded.

MOYNIHAN: But I mean if you can’t spend 20 years at an issue, don’t get involved in something like this.

HEFFNER: But what other agency can bring about … ?

MOYNIHAN: Let me make, if I can, this point. Family policy. There is no way a modern government can avoid having policies that effect the family. It can only acknowledge and be aware of them or ignore them.

HEFFNER: Whatever it does effects the family.

MOYNIHAN: Yes. Absolutely. In so many things it does. Let me give you a specific example. I wrote an article in AMERICA, the Jesuit publication, in 1965, calling a family policy for the nation. And it was rather interesting. I picked this up in the Godkin Lectures, this strength. I said, take a look at the dependence allowance and income tax. I’m right now in ’65. We set it at $600 in 1948. It hasn’t changed a bit since. It’s value has dropped in half. That means the provision in income tax that says well, if you’re raising a family and you have got kids, you’re going to need to keep more of your income than otherwise. I said, you know, what’s the matter with us. Then the subject dropped out of my mind completely. I’d been on the Finance Committee for eight years. Hadn’t paid much attention to it. And the last year a fellow named Sterling, a conservative economist … and I mean he would say politically he’s conservative … wrote an article on this issue. And said the biggest single change in income tax system in the post-war period has been the almost disappearance of the value of the dependency allowance. He said if you were to take that $600 in 1948 and as a proportion of … (inaudible) … per capita income, it would be $5,600 today. So let’s say a fellow in Chicago whose got four kids, five or four kids, he’d have to make $35,000 before the Federal Government would be even looking at his income by the 1948 standards. Where today we collect income tax from people who are below the poverty line. And it was nobody’s affair to keep track of that. We indexed everything except the things that matter for children. Another thing. There are people who talk about how we’ve given so many benefits to children. And that may be why we’ve encouraged dependency and so forth. In the 1970’s, sir, the real constant dollar value of social security benefits the average benefit, went up 55%. That’s probably because we increased them, but also people coming into the retirement age had long work histories. It was a mature system now, and they had good incomes over long periods. Okay. Their real incomes went up 55%. The value of the average payment under AFDC which is Title 4 in the Social Security Act, dropped by a third. And nobody noticed.

HEFFNER: Now you’ve noticed. Do you think there’s some real likelihood that we’ll make amends for that?

MOYNIHAN: I want to say that President Reagan’s proposal on tax reform of which I have a lot of problems with things like state and local tax deduction which would, I think, be very harmful to education for that matter, nonetheless does increase that dependent allowance in the tax to $2,000. It’s now $1,090. We did index it two years ago. And that’s a real thing. And they did it consciously as a matter of family policy. There was a group in the White House that fought very hard for that, and I’m very proud of them and very pleased, and so wish to state.

HEFFNER: Senator Moynihan, noted. Let me ask you another very, I think very fundamental question, what you said about that Cabinet meeting. That day at the White House that March day at the White House when Sargent Shriver understood what he was being told about the dichotomization in terms of our resources between Viet Nam and the war against poverty. Do you feel that this nation is rich enough to have the security, and you certainly demonstrated in your years at the U.N. in the period that you were in the U.N., your concern for our security our national security? Do we have the resources that would enable us to arm to the degree that we must arm and at the same time to have the level of social justice for our children and for the elderly, too, that you think is necessary? Important question. Do we have the resources? Can we do it?

MOYNIHAN: Yes, we do. And I want to start out right here with a question, I mean with a proposition. We still have appalling rates of unemployment among youth. Inner city youth, 40%, 50%. What do you get from someone who’s unemployed? Nothing. Putting people to work, finding ways to do so effectively, increases your wealth. It doesn’t cost you anything. It may be awash, sometimes, like a grant. But it doesn’t in the end, cost you anything. We have the … there’s no industrial nation, democracy I know, that does worse at one essential thing. And that is, how do you take people out of school out of the world of school and into the world of work? That connection is so … I mean the shearing there is awful. I mean, now I count myself a lucky one. I joined the Navy when I was 16 years old and … 17 signed up … and when I turned 17 I joined the Navy. So I had no problem finding work. That was World War II. Kids get out of high school in Chicago and Los Angeles and Dallas and New York and there’s no one looking for them. No one’s saying, here, come this way. We have … so much of this work takes real … it’s handwork … I mean it’s not stuff you do on computers. You do it with your hands and you do it with a child and you do it with an adolescent and God knows raising children is, you know … adolescents, all right? I talked to people who do this very much. You know … one of the group of heroines or heroes if you like in this country are the Junior League. They were founded in New York City by … at the turn of the century to provide young ladies to work in settlement houses all over this country. And the question foster care which I’m much involved with because it’s part of Social Security they really work at foster care and adoption. You’d be amazed at the millions of children in foster care. And do you know what happens? We can get them through the foster care until 18 and suddenly they fall right out. There’s no support for them. There’s no home for them. Almost half the children, the female children who leave foster care at 18 are back on welfare with a baby by 19.

HEFFNER: Senator, I’ve just gotten the signal believe it or not that we have one minute left. And I really want to come back and I think I understand your answer to this fundamental question guns and butter, security and social justice. You really feel we can do it?

MOYNIHAN: I’m going to predict present and future. You want to eat up everything you have in the present? Your seed corn? What kind of country is it that has the poorest group of it population its children under six? What does that say about your future? If you can’t take care of your children, you have abandoned your future. And that’s not the way a grown up democracy about to be two centuries in its glory should behave. We don’t want to turn into that third century settling for that.

HEFFNER: And that’s a fair enough way of ending the program. And thank you so much for joining me today, Senator Moynihan. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you, too, will join us again next time here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile as an old friend used to say, good night and good luck.