The sound of cement breaking

March 28, 1994|By Mona Charen

IT IS difficult to hear it above the din of the Clinton administration -- Whitewater, Joycelyn Elders endorsing homosexual adoption, the health-care fight -- but a truly significant sound is issuing from the liberal side of the family values debate: It is the sound of cement breaking.

Thoughtful people in the Democratic Party are beginning to acknowledge that the breakdown of the family is the most serious social problem we face. The Atlantic magazine put the acknowledgment on its front cover last year in an article by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead titled "Dan Quayle Was Right." And even President Clinton himself has agreed that the rate of illegitimacy in this country amounts to a "crisis." (Some of us still have not forgotten, though, that candidate Clinton gleefully jumped on the bandwagon to ridicule Dan Quayle during the Murphy Brown flap. "It's not family values that count, but valuing families," he said, in the Ted Sorensen argot to which Democratic candidates are so unfortunately drawn.)

Today, Mr. Clinton is willing to devote considerable passion to the subject of family decline. But if Dan Quayle was a poor advocate because he lacked a certain gravitas, Bill Clinton is worse because there wafts from his personal conduct the distinct odor of hypocrisy.

It is unfortunate for the country that this is so, because the kind of reforms that are necessary in the realm of government policy toward families could more easily be achieved by a Democrat than a Republican.

Still, looking on the bright side, it is a good sign that even in an administration that is as liberal as we are likely to see for some time, there is a debate raging over the proper path to welfare reform. If even the Clinton administration is beset by doubts about traditional welfare approaches, true reform cannot be far away.

The most learned, intellectually serious and careful proponent of reform within the Clinton administration is William Galston, deputy assistant to the president for domestic policy. In a recent speech to the Institute for American Values, Mr. Galston noted that the debate has moved within the past 10 years. We are no longer arguing, he said, "about basic facts and basic premises." One basic fact that Mr. Galston cited as irrefutable is that family disintegration is hurting our children dreadfully.

He cited a "favorite statistic." The Annie E. Casey Foundation compared two groups of people. The first were people who had finished high school, gotten married before having their first child and waited until at least age 20 before starting a family. The second group had done none of those things.

Of the children in the first group, only 8 percent were living in poverty in 1992. Of the children in the second group, 79 percent were poor.

Another thing we're not arguing about anymore, said Mr. Galston, is the relative importance of race and ethnicity vs. family structure. And Mr. Galston supplied another telling statistic. The family income of black two-parent families is almost three times that of white single-parent families.

"Government policy," Mr. Galston is not afraid to say, "has been very, very ill-conceived" with regard to families. The tax code is skewed against families with children "for reasons deliberate and accidental," and "we should turn that around."

As for the welfare system, Mr. Galston thinks it is responsible for 15 percent to 20 percent of the family disintegration in America, less than conservatives would ascribe to it but far more than many in the Democratic Party are willing to grant.

Mr. Galston would attack these problems on all fronts, with thoroughgoing welfare reform, divorce-law changes, a cultural campaign against illegitimacy and tax relief for families. How far does President Clinton go in all of these areas? Mr. Galston told me that he is not at liberty to speculate -- "the president's proposal [coming in a few weeks] will embody the president's views."

Perhaps. But this president has paid lip service to welfare reform before and wound up recommending policies that enshrine the status quo. It would behoove him to be bold this time around, not just because Mr. Galston is right, but because a truly revolutionary proposal would ignite a national debate that would distract attention from Whitewater.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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