To the Editor:
I was very surprised by Norman Podhoretz’s “A Call to Dubious Battle” [July] directed against the “group around Social Policy” and their presumed influence on the legislation of the 60’s. After all, Daniel P. Moynihan was Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Democratic administration (and Nathan Glazer was a major consultant to HUD). No one on the Editorial Board of Social Policy had anything like this kind of influence. Moreover, I and a good number of people on the Editorial Board have always been deeply critical of many of the anti-poverty assumptions: we were among the first to criticize the entire compensatory-education approach which characterized Head Start and most of the other educational programs; we were deeply critical of the whole notion of providing poor-people training without the prior creation of jobs; and a good number of the radical members of our Board eschewed entirely the whole anti-poverty program on the grounds that nothing serious could be achieved under capitalism.
Others of us in the 60’s, like George Wiley and Frances Piven, helped to organize the welfare-rights movement which led to an improved income for those poor who obtained welfare benefits; and the notion of a guaranteed income emanates not from Nixon and Moynihan but from the National Welfare Rights Organization and, incidentally, from some of the Social Policy intellectuals who led the way in developing this demand in the 60’s.
A few of us did make some legislative contributions in the 60’s, such as the programs for the use of paraprofessionals, some 500,000 of whom have obtained jobs in health, education, and community work in the United States. (Most of the data on paraprofessionals indicate that they are highly effective and well accepted; see Alan Gartner, The Paraprofessional and His Performance, Praeger, 1972.) This job focus was the major forerunner of the powerful public-service employment thrust of the 70’s which may have much more impact on redistributing services and income and moving toward full employment than Nixon’s welfare proposals, with their forced-work provisions and call for training without job creation.
But we welcome Mr. Podhoretz’s desire to take a good look at the 60’s to see what really happened: what happened, to mention just two examples, is that the reading scores of poor children failed to improve and large numbers of people did not move out of poverty (although some did). There are many reasons for this, including the fact that many of the programs, as Frances Piven has noted, were used for political purposes; there were huge professional “rip-offs,” or gains, for the various service providers; many of the programs were ill-conceived, there was much learning that had to occur before the problems could be dealt with; and finally it is questionable how far these programs could go without a basic reorganization of the society. But the recognition of the need for this reorganization has come out of the 60’s and many of us who were developing programs and critiques of other programs were concerned with developing this new consciousness, while at the same time winning benefits for poor people, increasing the democratization of institutions, and building a new majority that is strengthening groups like youth, women, blacks, minorities, etc. This new majority, whose new politics are now democratizing the Democratic party, is an outgrowth of the 60’s.
Moreover, the 60’s were not in fact the failure Mr. Podhoretz would have us believe. Important new rights were recognized for young people, welfare recipients, blacks, women, consumers, homosexuals, prisoners, patients—the right to participate in university decisions; the right not to be hungry; personal rights such as abortion and birth control; the right to nonpolluted air; the right to a guaranteed income; and many, many more. Even more important, the poor began to demand popular control over their institutions, neighborhoods, and government, and in this . . . they showed the way to other groups in the society—women, youth, and so on. The new assault is clearly directed at the beachheads that were won in the 60’s and still persist in the 70’s—in the women’s movement, in the new demand for the right to a guaranteed job, and in the coming National Health Insurance program. That much has been accomplished is what really dismays the “assaulters on equality”—they are dismayed by the successes and not by the failures of the 60’s.
But let us look for a moment at the Office of Economic Opportunity which has been the main target of the critics. The OEO was, in fact, the leading force in developing the legal rights of the poor. The long-term effect, apart from the many direct benefits to the poor, has been the emergence of a great variety of legal class actions eventuating in highly significant court decisions like Serrano, Rodriguez, and Griggs, as well as in many other cases directed toward the rights and entitlements of the educationally handicapped, the mentally ill, etc.
In particular, the OEO played a major role in the expansion of family-planning services for the poor, programs generally recognized as highly effective. The OEO also introduced the concept of maximum-feasibility participation—a concept which, while watered down in many cases, has had wide applicability in Model-Cities programs, educational programs, and in the effective community-action aspect of Head Start. Its ethos has expanded into all kinds of institutions (including political parties), increasing their democratization and sensitizing them to people’s demands.
In essence, the programs of the 60’s which were concerned with repairing individuals to fit institutions were unsuccessful; while those programs that changed institutions and structures to be more consistent with the needs and style of the poor were relatively effective and have become institutionalized in American life. Moreover, the long-term indirect effects may be greater than is generally recognized.
Mr. Podhoretz also gets on the bandwagon of supporting income for the poor in contrast to services. But if a good portion of the future income of the poor is to derive from public jobs, and if these jobs are to involve the providing of services, it will not be possible to make the simplistic separation of income and service programs that is becoming so popular. Furthermore, as S. M. Miller pointed out long ago, services are part of the “new income” and are badly needed by the poor as well as by everyone else in our society.
When it comes to the Family Assistance Plan the shallowness of Mr. Podhoretz’s diatribe becomes quite clear. With no evidence whatsoever as to what the program might actually be expected to achieve, he describes it as a revolutionary program which will produce a radical redistribution of income. He doesn’t seem to apply to himself the same canons of evidence for which he does such dubious battle. Indeed, he consistently chooses to ignore his own very good advice about rigorous thought and documentation in social analysis and planning. . . .
Editor, Social Policy
New York City
To the Editor:
I must be part of that social-policy community deplored by Norman Podhoretz since I am a member of the Editorial Board of Social Policy magazine. Nevertheless, I record one point of agreement between us. It would indeed be pleasant if intellectuals writing in COMMENTARY, Social Policy, and elsewhere were courteous to each other. But the history of fratricide among scribblers argues against the imminence of such a revolution in manners.
Mr. Podhoretz’s weightiest criticisms assert the failure of “Great-Society” service programs and the desirability of “reflection” upon the meaning of the failure by the advocates of such programs. Whether or not this failure is universal is an argument for another occasion. I stress here a different point, that service strategies are not the only tools of social involvement. I and other members of the social-policy community have long preferred three other mechanisms of egalitarian change: direct creation of jobs via public-service employment; redistribution of income and wealth through a reshaped structure of inheritance and income taxation as well as an appropriate negative-income tax; and redistribution of political power through, among other devices, expansion of legal services, one “Great-Society” program which, incidentally, has not failed. I note parenthetically that it is perfectly possible at once to favor egalitarian change and oppose the Nixon Family Assistance Plan. FAP reduces benefit levels in the more generous states. Worse still, its work and training requirements seem better calculated to control and harass the poor than to improve their condition. No need to marvel at the President’s magnanimity. The poor man deserves more credit for consistency than Mr. Podhoretz grants him. As ever, he defends the strong and cherishes the rich.
The social-policy community, in short, contains a varied assortment of people and opinions in addition to those Mr. Podhoretz chooses to discuss. . . .
Department of Economics
State University of New York
Stony Brook, New York
To the Editor:
As a member of the Editorial Board of Social Policy, I want to reply to two aspects of Norman Podhoretz’s ill-tempered attack.
There is a fundamental difference between criticism of specific social-policy programs, and abandonment of the spirit and commitment which gave rise to them. The pages of Social Policy are full of criticisms of programs which were hastily drawn, inadequately monitored, and guided by too simple a view of the problem to be attacked. My own work has consistently taken this view of the manpower programs of the 1960’s. But to announce the “limits of social policy” (Nathan Glazer), or the inevitability of genetically and racially determined hierarchies of merit (R. J. Herrnstein), or the mischief which inevitably will result when the poor are given the right to control programs ostensibly for their benefit (Daniel P. Moynihan) is to counsel despair and abandonment of the struggle, under the guise of “reflection.” This spirit is what links the targets of Professor Ryan’s attack; regrettably, it is a spirit which has found increasing expression and support in the pages of COMMENTARY.
Mr. Podhoretz cites figures from the recent Brookings study, Setting National Priorities: The 1973 Budget to argue that the federal budget is overloaded with “Great-Society” programs. But the $35.7 billion figure to which he refers must be compared with the $75.5 billion figure for “older income-maintenance programs,” the intellectual basis for which was laid in the first thirty years of this century. And the $35.7 billion includes greatly expanded support for health and education, and other social commitments with long intellectual and political pedigrees. When these are separated out, the funds which finance “ideas conceived by professionals like the group around Social Policy magazine” shrink almost out of sight.
At the same time, between 1963 and 1973, military spending rose by a shade less than 50 per cent, and successive tax cuts reduced funds available for new social programs; tax reduction is the real name for the social policies of the 1960’s. The Brookings study estimates that if personal and corporate taxes had been kept at 1963 levels, receipts from these two sources alone would have totalled $181.6 billion, or $34.6 billion more than the actual estimate of $147.0 billion. . . .
Sumner M. Rosen
Institute of Public Administration
New York City
To the Editor:
. . . Norman Podhoretz says “since 1963, federal spending on the new poverty programs which came in with the ‘Great Society’ has risen from $1.7 billion to $35.7 billion. . . . This $35.7 billion of poverty-program money mainly goes not into the pockets of the poor but into services designed to help the poor in ways other than actually supplementing whatever income they may already command.” The source given for this statement is the report of the Brookings Institution, Setting National Priorities: The 1973 Budget. . . .
But let us look more carefully at the evidence. Here’s what it says on page 11 of Setting National Priorities, where the $35.7 billion figure first appears:
Of this total, some $20 billion is accounted for by programs that provide goods or services directly to people, principally the poor or the aged; housing subsidies to low- and moderate-income families; Medicare (for the aged) and Medicaid (for the poor); food stamps and school lunches; loans and scholarships for higher education. . . . The remaining $16 billion of Great Society programs provide . . . grants for establishing and operating community mental health centers; grants of various kinds to encourage better urban planning and rehabilitation of central cities; programs to increase the number of trained medical and paramedical personnel, and to develop improved methods of providing medical care; grants and loans to promote economic development in depressed areas; grants to communities and nonprofit groups and subsidies to industry to provide a wider range of manpower-training services; and many other similarly complex programs.
. . . Isn’t Mr. Podhoretz guilty of the same failure “to assess dispassionately” which he and T. R. Marmor [“Banfield’s ‘Heresy,’” July] are calling to our attention? . . .
I also resent the following statement: “The results, as almost everyone now agrees, have been negligible”; with an assist from the New York Times Mr. Podhoretz attributes this judgment to the Brookings Institution, “a principal refuge for architects of the Great Society.” After reading the above, more detailed, breakdown of the $35.7 billion, can Mr. Podhoretz really believe that the results have been negligible? . . . Can he suggest that $35.7 billion buys us nothing? . . . I suggest that the report is not an “epitaph” but a set of ideas for improving the capacity of the federal government to improve human welfare.
Department of Urban Studies
Providence, Rhode Island
To the Editor:
Bravo to Norman Podhoretz for his revelation of the huge sums of money that have been spent on new poverty programs. . . . It is ironic that so little of these public funds actually reach the poor or help them to rise out of poverty. Some blame for this must be given the Nixon administration for not having accepted the concept of the federal government as the employer of last resort, but we must not overlook the fact that there are social workers, so-called community leaders, and government bureaucrats who have a vested interest in the continuation of poverty, and this is true of many employers as well. . . .
Walter R. Storey
Norman Podhoretz writes:
In calling for “reflection” on the failures of the 60’s, I was saying that the ability to do anything at all, in this field or any other, depends on the capacity to recognize the limits of one’s knowledge and power. To Mr. Rosen such a call is tantamount to a counsel of despair. Yet Daniel P. Moynihan, for example, far from offering any such counsel, has been pressing for the establishment of a guaranteed annual income in this country against the opposition of Messrs. Lekachman and Riessman, among others, within the social-policy community. They tell us they are opposed to FAP because it contains certain features they dislike. FAP is a very complicated plan and it has been revised so many times by now that arguing about its details is impossible in short compass. Nevertheless I think it can be asserted that of the two reasons Mr. Lekachman gives for being against it, the first (that it would “reduce benefit levels in the more generous states”) is wrong and the second (that the damage which would be done to the poor by its work and training requirements would outweigh the benefits) is callous. For the fact is that FAP would provide a guaranteed income payment which is higher than the welfare payments in about half the states of the Union, and while it would not in itself raise the level of payments in the other half, neither would it do anything to lower them. As to the work and training requirements, however “repressive” they may be—and that is itself open to serious question—do they really justify opposition, especially by self-proclaimed egalitarians, to a measure that would give benefits to some fifteen million of the working poor—dirt farmers, migrant workers, and the like—who currently get nothing?
The only other serious point raised by these letters is whether the “Great Society” programs of the 60’s have indeed failed. I had, I admit, thought that almost everyone agreed as to the fact that the “war on poverty” was a failure and that the only disagreements concerned the assignment of blame or responsibility. Messrs. Chinitz, Lekachman, and Riessman have convinced me that I was wrong. Thus although Mr. Riessman complains that the group around Social Policy had little influence on the course of events in the 60’s, he goes on to credit that group with an astonishing number of achievements, sounding (by no accident at all, I should say) exactly like a politician celebrating his record in office, and suddenly painting a rather rosy picture of that same American society which the social-policy community has so often excoriated as rotten and corrupt. Well, that is at least a gain of sorts. My own view, however, continues to be that the results of the programs making up the “war on poverty” have been negligible when measured (pace Mr. Rosen) both against the money and energy spent on them and against the promises they entailed. The approach Mr. Lekachman recommends may indeed be a better one than the services-oriented approach of the 60’s, but his tone is just a little too confident to persuade me that he has assimilated what I take to be the main lesson of the recent past in this area: namely, that we do not know as much as we think we do about how to deal with certain social problems, and that our failures are a consequence less of a deficiency of will than of a deficiency of knowledge, understanding, and intellectual humility.