Op-Ed

The Future of Compassion: President Bush’s social program hasn’t yet gotten a chance

John J. DiIulio, Jr.

In his first presidential campaign speech, George W. Bush rejected as “destructive” the idea that “if government would only get out of the way, all our problems would be solved.” He pledged support for “faith-based organizations, charities and community groups.” Once in office, he promised to help mobilize adult mentors for at-risk urban youth, and to aid the big cities they call home. “No child left behind,” he repeated, is his special “charge to keep.”

Anyone privileged to be around him, as I was during the first 180 days of his administration, knows that President Bush is a strong moral leader with a true heart for the poor. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he has rightly redefined his presidency around national and homeland security priorities. But neither before Sept. 11 nor since has his noble, compassionate conservative vision been matched by equally compassionate domestic policies and social welfare initiatives.

The president’s compassion agenda was never really launched. Early on, pressures from conservative religious leaders and inside-the-beltway libertarians confounded the administration’s domestic policy deliberations, often pre-empting consideration of social welfare measures that might woo centrist voters, win bipartisan support in Congress, and produce measurable results.

Since the Nixon administration, the Executive Office of the President has become a creature of the daily media spin cycle and the permanent campaign. Today, the EOP offices that matter most (or matter only) are those dedicated to “strategic” (i.e., political) initiatives, communications, press relations and speech writing.

For several reasons, the domestic politics-to-policy ratio in the White House today is arguably the highest in recent history. Bush staff, not just senior political adviser Karl Rove, came from Texas tightly knit and hyper-determined to protect the president and prevent the types of internal policy debates that beget bad press. They staffed and organized themselves accordingly, thereby limiting leaks _ but also eliminating efforts to devise social welfare initiatives in accordance with the president’s compassion vision.

It is, however, by no means too late to reanimate that vision. Much of what needs doing would require neither big new legislation nor radical increases in government social spending. Here is a seven-item short list adapted from the president’s on-the-record promises:

  1. Guarantee health insurance for all children: Nearly one-quarter of poor children currently lack health insurance. Clinton-era reforms to Medicaid, the federal-state program that pays medical expenses for eligible low-income persons, actually took Washington to the border of universal health coverage for kids. But Medicaid’s fiscal and administrative gaps are many, and, with more than half the states facing budget deficits, the federal government must step in soon if only to preserve existing child-health programs.

  2. Help the working poor get the tax credits they deserve. A single mom with two children qualifies for an Earned Income Tax Credit of nearly $4,000 if her minimum-wage job pays about $10,000 a year. But if she marries a man who earns as much, she loses lots. The Bush administration has worked to end such so-called marriage penalties, but it has not addressed a bigger problem: Millions of EITC-eligible folks don’t apply because they don’t know they are entitled to or how to get money they are due. Several cities have tried on their own, but the feds must help.

  3. Strengthen federal welfare reform laws. The 1996 reform package featured TANF, a block grant program imposing time limits on welfare payments and establishing work requirements. Rather than push for increased work requirements, the White House should heed the advice offered by many Republican governors and state human-services commissioners regarding how difficult new work rules would be to implement in this economy, and respect research showing that certain TANF-related education and job training ventures work, and that many ex-welfare moms remain in poverty.

  4. Assist financially strapped “armies of compassion.” The president has raised more money for Republican congressional candidates than has yet gone to support local community-serving organizations and grassroots religious groups. The White House Faith and Community Initiatives Office, the Corporation for National and Community Service, and federal cabinet agencies need to provide technical assistance to street-level Samaritans who supply social services without proselytizing. Clinton-era “charitable choice” laws banning discrimination against faith-based providers remain on the books but need to be duly implemented.

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  5. Aid big cities where the poor are concentrated. The president has assured the U.S. Conference of Mayors that his administration would be open to their problem-solving ideas. States with big cities now clearly need emergency revenue sharing or some such practical help to meet social service obligations (many derived from federal laws and mandates) to their disproportionately needy populations and neighborhoods.

  6. Mobilize mentors and assist the children, youth, and families of prisoners. The president has repeatedly touted the social effects of putting loving, caring adults into the lives of at-risk youth. He has spoken eloquently about assisting the nearly 2 million children in this country with one or both parents imprisoned, and more than half a million men who now exit prison each year. Policies to help are needed now.

  7. Implement the education bill. Getting full funding for the Bush education law, enacted in 2001, may require the White House to push Republican leaders in Congress hard. The law, co-drafted by Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy’s staff, would substantially increase federal spending for low-income school children, and move Washington closer to making quality after-school reading programs a reality.

Simply getting low-income Americans a full complement of federal benefits under existing laws could reduce extreme poverty by as much as 70 percent. Over the next two or six years, Bush could yet become the greatest domestic and social welfare president in decades. Pray he does.

John J. DiIulio Jr. is a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and a former assistant to President Bush. He wrote this for the Philadelphia Inquirer.