Sharing a Passion for Getting the Policy Right

Alice M. Rivlin
Alice Rivlin
Alice M. Rivlin Former Brookings Expert

May 8, 2008

The following remarks were delivered by Alice Rivlin upon accepting the Inaugural Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize on May 8th, 2008 at the The American Academy of Political and Social Science. An audio version of the remarks are available at the AAPSS blog.

I am deeply honored to be the first recipient of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Prize, and delighted to be here this evening in the company of all these distinguished scholars, to have Elizabeth and Maura here, and many, many friends and associates of Pat’s.

I think of Pat often, but I only recently noticed this Pennsylvania theme, which is odd for a man so strongly associated the state of New York. In fact, I thought of Pat very recently when as I stood on the balcony of the new Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue in DC, and looked at one of the world’s most spectacular views which owes so much to Pat’s vision and persistence and dedication to restoring and enhancing Pennsylvania Avenue. And I think of him often as I work my way through Penn Station in New York City, and it’s a nice coincidence that this event in his honor is on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania.

In future years, there will be recipients of this prize who did not have the good fortune of knowing Pat Moynihan. They will look up his biography on the internet, or whatever information wonder succeeds the internet, and they will find a connection with Pat to mention in their remarks. But I’m really lucky, because I did have the good fortune of knowing Pat Moynihan over four decades, so I can actually talk about Pat. I never worked for him and I can’t claim that we were close friends, but our careers intersected at a remarkable number of points. We liked and respected each other, shared a love of public policy ideas and the passion for getting the policy right. We had the same basic values, although we didn’t always agree on the tactics. I remember arguing with him on everything from welfare reform to cost overruns on Pennsylvania Avenue. Interactions with Pat were sometimes frustrating because he was such a skilled debater and he didn’t like to lose. But they were always vigorous and intellectually rewarding.

Pat and I both served as young assistant secretaries in the Johnson administration (that’s Lyndon Johnson for the younger people in the audience). I was at the Department of Health and Education and Welfare (HEW), which is no more, and he was at Labor. But actually, I first remember interacting with him early in the transition to the Nixon administration. At HEW in the latter part of the Johnson administration, we were focused on how to reduce poverty and improve the badly functioning welfare system. Many academics favored scrapping welfare in favor of a negative income tax, a seemingly simple proposal to use the tax system to put a floor under family incomes and preserve incentives to work, while allowing workers to keep a portion of their earnings. The existing Aid to Families with Dependent Children, as Pat and others had pointed out, benefited only female-headed families and implicitly taxed earnings at 100 percent, bad incentives both for keeping families together and for work. The negative income tax was a radical idea, but the IRS didn’t like it and didn’t want to administer it, for understandable reasons. Some of us in the Johnson administration thought the goal could be accomplished more easily by reforming the welfare system itself to approximate a negative income tax without involving the IRS. But President Johnson wasn’t buying. He didn’t like to think about the welfare system. He liked Head Start and education programs and Job Corps and other ways of giving people the tools to raise their earnings, but he didn’t like giving them money. He consistently called our department the Department of Health and Education, leaving off the welfare, but in the transition to President Nixon there was a chance that this new idea would appeal to the new President. So we began talking to Pat Moynihan, who by now was working in the Nixon White House. I’m not sure who originated the idea, and it may well have been Pat, but he picked up the work and embellished it and, most importantly, sold it to President Nixon. He convinced Nixon and the Family Assistance Plan was launched. It was a valiant try. I, back at the Brookings Institution by this time, testified several times in its favor and wrote op-eds in every newspaper that would take them. It passed the House of Representatives twice but it died in the Senate, killed by a combination of southern conservatives who thought it too generous to the poor and northern liberals who thought it was not generous enough. But Pat never gave up. He was flexible in his approaches; for a while he favored the Children’s Allowance, but he was consistently focused on using federal powers to make life better for poor people. There had already been the Moynihan Report on the Negro Family, an honest look at serious problems, the rapidly rising number of single mothers and births out of wedlock in the African-American community. Pat took a lot of grief for that report, because the militant left and the civil rights advocates took it out of context and called him a racist. The furor reflected raw emotions about race that unfortunately are still with us.

Pat’s long career in the Senate stretched from my years at the CBO (I came in 1975, he was elected in 1976) through my return to the Brookings Institution and my years in the Clinton administration. When I was at the Congressional Budget Office, Pat and I had a lot of long talks on the phone or in person; actually there were no short talks with Pat Moynihan. Sometimes when he wanted to expound his views on some report that we had done or just work through his latest theory on the issues of the day, he would call me up or ask me to come over. Whatever point he was making was embroidered with wonderful literary and historical citations and always left me amazed at how much he could remember and quote verbatim on so many different subjects. In the Clinton years, my relations with Pat were more challenging, because he was not always enthusiastic about what my administration was trying to do. I love that happy picture on the invitation, which was taken at my first confirmation hearing in 1993, but I also have another picture somewhere of the two of us sitting in his office. We’re not smiling; in fact I’m looking downright tense. I had been dispatched by the Clinton White House to try to persuade the chairman of the Finance Committee to support our version of welfare reform. The conversation was not going well. I was arguing that the poor would ultimately benefit from the Clinton plan to end welfare as we knew it by enforcing work requirements and putting limits on welfare support. He was vociferous about his concern that the plan would throw millions of families with children into poverty by cutting their benefits and forcing their mothers into dead-end jobs. In retrospect, we were both right. Welfare reform “worked,” in the sense that welfare rolls plummeted, many low-income mothers found jobs, some of them got training and found jobs with a future, and many children benefited from daycare and early childhood education. But Pat was right that most of the jobs that former welfare mothers found were low-paid, insecure, and without health benefits. Training and childcare funding was never adequate. The result was that the typical welfare family was doing more work after welfare reform, but had less security and no more income.

But let’s switch to the future. I’d like to focus on just two of Pat’s myriad policy issues. The first is the increasing struggle of low-wage workers to find and hold jobs that pay a decent wage and make possible a rising standard of living. We are losing ground. Growth of incomes in recent years is more and more concentrated at the top, not the top fifth or the top 10 percent, but actually the top 1 percent, while average workers’ wages stagnate and fall behind the cost of living. The elite establishment likes to stop this conversation right there by telling anyone who brings it up that they are engaged in class warfare. Okay, so be it. Call it whatever you will. The debate about how the fruits of this highly productive economy are shared is an incredibly important debate to be having. The most important objective is to make sure that opportunities for a good education are available to all children, that opportunities for training and retraining and advancement are open to all, that everyone gets basic healthcare and a real chance to make healthy choices. Now, it’s not easy to balance the concern for insuring basic minimums with instilling personal responsibility and incentives to work, problems that Pat struggled with throughout his public life. But some parts of this problem are not as hard as we are making it. We know a lot more about effective teaching and learning than we are putting into practice, and we could deliver good healthcare to everyone if we had the political will to do it.

Finally, let me say a word about the conversation about race. We have not learned, in the decades since the Moynihan Report, how to have a civil, constructive dialogue about race and how policy should address its persistent divisiveness in our society. The furor over Barack Obama’s pastor’s inflammatory remarks revealed the depth of the mistrust on all sides that is still there. Perhaps even more surprising, Hillary Clinton made the historically accurate statement that it was Lyndon Johnson the political leader who was able to translate the inspiration of Martin Luther King into legislation and get it passed. It’s preposterous that in 2008 her words should have been twisted into alleged disrespect for Dr. King and cries of racism. Hillary is no more a racist than Pat Moynihan was. So how long will it be before blacks and whites together can face up to the problems that our history has given us and start solving them together, not blaming and accusing each other. Nobody can deny that the legacy of slavery and discrimination has contributed to concentrations of black poverty, dysfunctional families and neighborhoods, millions of disconnected and incarcerated young black people, and to children with little chances to succeed. But we are here, now, and it is in everyone’s interest to stop posturing and start fixing. Blaming the victim doesn’t help, neither does playing the victim. If great universities like this one can take the lead in being safe places for serious, constructive dialogue on race, they will do a great deal for the future of America. I wish Pat were here to see it happen and join in.