Remarks at a White House Briefing for Supporters of Welfare Reform

February 9, 1987

Thank you very much. Now, you really are here on the subject of welfare reform. [Laughter] Last Friday I came in here with a speech all prepared to talk to people on private initiatives and found out it was a surprise birthday party. [Laughter]

Well, I'm delighted that all of you could be here today. I'll be off my limited schedule fairly soon, but in the meanwhile it's good to be with so many friends. I'm grateful for the many expressions of concern, but I'm doing fine thanks to some wonderful doctors. They're so skillful; I'm thinking of having them work on the budget. [Laughter] But I am completely recovered. In fact, the doctors told me this morning my blood pressure is down so low that I can start reading the newspapers and watching the TV news. [Laughter]

I'm also glad to have you here because I know each of you has struggled mightily to change America. Yet, even with our anxiousness to get on with the conservative agenda, it's sometimes important to recall how far we have come together. I always think back to the sixties and seventies -- and, well, even before then -- when our concern about Federal spending and deficits fell on many a deaf ear here in Washington. And then when we started talking about tax cuts and tax limitation, as well as lower marginal rates, official Washington was more amused than anything else.

But today those ideas and concerns are the order of the day in the Nation's Capital. And the results have added up to nothing less than an economic and social revolution. The rate of spending increase came down by whopping percentages; tax rates and inflation declined; America created some 13 million more jobs; family income started to rise; and the poverty rate declined for 2 straight years. And when I compare where we were only a few years ago with what some of our critics are saying about these accomplishments, I have to tell you that some of them remind me of an agent I heard about in my old career. It was back in those vaudeville days. People trying out for vaudeville would come in, empty theater, out on the stage, down there in front would be sitting a very cynical agent with a cigar, usually in his mouth, and he'd say okay, and they'd do their stuff. Well, this particular day a young fellow came out center stage, out came the cigar. He says, ``Okay, what do you do, kid?'' And the young fellow took off and flew around the ceiling of the theater up over the balconies and everything -- [laughter] -- came down to a perfect landing. And the agent said: ``Well, all right. What else do you do besides bird imitations.'' [Laughter]

Well, whatever our critics say, I think all of us can be confident that the American people realize -- just as I think someday historians will acknowledge -- that moving back to concepts like limited government and the free market, as well as respect for the entrepreneur, created one of the most important social and economic revolutions in our history. Not only did we grow and prosper economically but we renewed our political and social life as well. Government's inability to do anything about the burden that inflation and taxes were putting on our citizens was weakening public faith in our democratic institutions, a trend that today we have reversed.

Or consider the social damage we were doing to the most basic unit of society, that engine of social progress -- the family. For years inflation and taxes robbed the family of more and more of its livelihood -- an economic factor, of course, but as I say, a moral factor, too. For government said to young couples: We will tax you at higher rates for getting married. And in the years ahead, we will turn the screw of bracket creep even tighter, and then we'll let inflation rob your savings and erode your personal exemption -- in effect, imposing a higher and higher tax on your children. Well, is it any wonder then that in this period more and more of our young people postponed marriage or didn't marry at all, and postponed having children? But by bringing down tax rates, inflation, and interest rates, by ending bracket creep, we've made family life safer and more secure. And we can be proud today that the downward trend of marriage, family formation, and childbearing appears to be arrested. The simple fact is government had taken a stand against families. But thanks to your help and support, we're turning that around; we're putting government back on the side of families.

There's been another important dimension to our economic recovery. We're helping the poor as never before. There is, for example, no crueler burden on the poverty-stricken and the elderly than inflation. And by bringing inflation to a virtual standstill, we substantially increased the buying power of the poor families of America. So, too, our recent reform of the tax code will take millions of working poor people off the tax rolls entirely. Above all, we've built an economy that is creating millions of new jobs every year, providing growth and opportunity the poor need more than anyone. And that's why more than one-half million people moved off the poverty rolls in 1985. This economic recovery and social and political renewal have made it possible to focus on some of our deeply ingrained problems, like doing something about poverty. And it's here, I think, that we conservatives have an unrivaled opportunity in the years ahead, a cause that I believe we can make our own.

You know, America's welfare system has been a longstanding concern with us. But too frequently that concern has been interpreted as merely a desire to prevent waste or fraud or stop welfare abuse. Well now, don't get me wrong -- those are worthy and important objectives. Protecting the taxpayers' investment in Federal spending is a worthy objective -- especially since we want our Federal welfare spending to go to the people who really need it, the poor themselves, and not to people who already live comfortably. And all the economic progress that we've made, for example, has relied on trying to control Federal spending. When we took office, huge Federal programs with built-in yearly spending increases were just reaching maturation.

So, first we had to take steps to slow down the Federal spending juggernaut. We cut the rate of spending increase. And then, finally, this year we're managing to get the Federal Government to actually spend less in real terms than it spent the year before. Talk about the earthshaking!

But none of this would have been possible without the war on waste we began from our first day in office. Working with the Congress, we completely revitalized the Inspector General's program and saved the taxpayers untold billions. Last year, for instance, the Inspector General at Health and Human Services launched over 3,000 audits and investigations of fraud against the Government that resulted in 1,000 convictions. The office's fraud and management recommendations will recoup more than $5.3 billion when fully implemented. So, the war on waste and fraud has been an important part of our ability to bring down spending and ultimately to improve economic conditions for the poor. But I just think that waste and fraud isn't all we conservatives have to offer on the poverty problem -- not by a long shot.

Back in 1982, in a speech to a black political organization, I raised some of the questions discussed by the scholarly work of Charles Murray in the ``Public Interest.'' At the time this wasn't exactly fashionable, but since then things have been changing. Slowly a new bipartisan consensus on America's welfare system has developed -- a consensus that holds what only a few could say a short time ago: that it is our welfare system that is one of the most serious obstacles to progress for the poor. The evidence is in, and the history is clear: Twenty years ago, with the best of intentions, the Federal Government began a program that it hoped would wipe out poverty in America. Today the Federal Government and State governments, with 8 major welfare programs and more than 50 smaller ones, spends more than $130 billion to pursue this objective. And now, with less than half of this money, we could give every poor man, woman, and child enough to lift them above the poverty line. But believe me, it isn't just the arithmetic that doesn't make sense. During the past few years, we've seen serious questions raised -- in scholarly works like Mr. Murray's book ``Losing Ground,'' which showed poverty actually went up as the Federal Government spent more to eliminate it, to major network television specials featuring grim personal testimonials about the Federal welfare system. And the issue here is really compassion.

How compassionate is a welfare system that discourages families that are economically self-reliant, that takes 6,000 pages of Federal regulations to explain, and is so complex it confuses and demoralizes the poor? How compassionate is a system that robs the poor of the tools to break the cycle of dependency? Well, the emerging consensus on welfare is finally agreeing with us that the Federal welfare system has become a poverty trap, a trap that is wreaking havoc on the very support system the poor need most to lift themselves up and out of destitution -- the family. This growing bipartisan consensus holds that our current welfare system is not only a failure but counterproductive -- the institutionalization of ghetto life where, as Bill Moyers put it in his special on this subject last year: ``Mothers are children, fathers don't count, and the street is the strongest school.''

And I just think conservatives should have a special interest in this because, as I've mentioned, our original skepticism about the welfare system has been sadly borne out by recent research. But second, strengthening the family has been among our highest priorities and, believe me, no one needs that strength and help today more than America's poor.

Let me pause here and cite as an example one disturbing problem we hear so much about: the homeless. Here in Washington there's a young Capuchin Franciscan priest named Father Jack Pfannenstiel who not only runs shelters for the homeless but has started a project called McKenna House, a kind of halfway house where the homeless are not just warehoused but given special counseling and training so that they might return to productive jobs and normal lives. And while the problems of the homeless are complex and deepgoing, when Father Pfannenstiel is pressed on the issue, he always remarks that at the root of these problems is a history of family breakdown and difficulty. So, I just think the time is ripe for realizing our traditional concern with strengthening the family is directly related to this emerging national consensus on the welfare issue. I think conservatives and Republicans can now join with liberals and Democrats in reappraising that entire system and examining the reason for its failure. There is common ground. We all know it isn't working. We know there will be no easy answer -- it's the belief that there were easy answers that got us into the situation in the first place.

We have to fight the impulse of many to believe that one policy change or reform, written and implemented here in Washington, can solve the problem of poverty and welfare dependency. We know from 20 years painful experience that it cannot. In seeking solutions we, as a nation, need to draw upon the practical genius of the thousands of community leaders and individuals who deal with that problem every day. The Federal Government should retain its current financing role, but it cannot provide all the answers. We need to reevaluate our entire antipoverty strategy -- a reevaluation that will provide us with new approaches and initiatives, initiatives that will have as their goal the defense and strengthening of the family as the key to a strategic assault on poverty. And that's why last year I asked for a study of our welfare system. The recommendations of that study, ``Up From Dependency,'' are now being implemented. It's also why on Wednesday of this week I will have a chance both to hear about and describe some of the approaches we hope to take in getting what is essentially a research and development program off the ground. So, too, in my radio talk on Saturday I mentioned that we had written to the Governors of the 50 States and asked them here to the White House to be a part of this nationwide commitment to welfare reform.

And today I just want to seek your active support, to ask you to join together with many millions of other Americans in this critical domestic initiative. We know the answers are out there -- in our 50 States, in our cities and neighborhoods, and in the minds and hearts of the thousands of self-help leaders who are ready with hundreds of antipoverty ideas -- if only our complex welfare system will allow them greater freedom to succeed. They can show us how to make work more rewarding than welfare; how to provide incentives for dignity, instead of incentives for dependency. And I'm certain that we can, as a nation, move forward and together on this issue. I've said a great many times, instead of citing at the end of each year how many people were being maintained on welfare -- if the program was really correct, every year they would be saying how many people we had been able to remove from welfare and restore to a position of independence. Now, all of us care about the poor, all of us want to see the tragedy that is poverty ended. So, let's get to work. Now, I realize there's going to be some crabbing, and there's going to be some of the same kind of press that, well, I've been getting kind of used to in the last few weeks.

You know, I can't resist telling you another story. Sometimes, I tell you, I feel a little bit here like the man who was the farmer that was driving his horse and wagon to town for a load of grain and had a head-on collision with an automobile. He was lying there seriously injured, even some of them were permanent disabilities. And later followed the usual legal procedures with the insurance company and all, and he was on the stand and a lawyer said to him, ``While you were lying there at the scene of the accident, didn't someone come up to you and ask you how you were feeling? And didn't you answer that you never felt better in your life?'' ``Well,'' he said, ``Yes -- yes, I guess, I remember that happening.'' Well, later, on redirect, another lawyer was asking the question, and he said, ``What were the circumstances when you gave that answer as to how you felt?'' ``Well,'' he said, ``I was lying there, and,'' he said, ``a car came up and a deputy sheriff got out.'' He said: ``My horse was neighing with pain and kicking -- had two broken legs. The deputy sheriff put the gun in his ear and put the horse out of his misery.'' He said: ``My dog had a broken back and was whining with pain, and he went over -- did the same thing -- [laughter] -- put it there and shot him -- [laughter] -- and then he came over to me and said, `Now, how are you feeling?''' [Laughter]

So, even though there may be some misguided criticism of what we're trying to do, I think we're on the wrong [right] path. And you know something else? From dealing as a Governor closer at hand with welfare, and those people, I think truly that the bulk of the people on welfare aren't just lazy bums or cheaters -- they want nothing more than to be independent, free of the social workers, and out on their own once again. So, we can help them do that.

Thank you all, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:30 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.