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March 15, 2009


Policy Advocate Misses Mark
By Dr. Vaughn May

It is hard not to like Marian Wright Edelman, and it is virtually impossible not to respect her. She navigated the treacherous waters of 1960’s Mississippi before moving on to Spelman College and Yale Law School. Her Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) organization is one of the most powerful civil rights organizations on the planet, and politicians of all stripes work diligently to curry her favor. She is the great American success story, and it was clear that her receptive Belmont audience on February 4th thought so as well.

Edelman’s courageous personal journey, however, does not imply that her policy prescriptions should be immune from criticism. Flowery language should not shield bad policies, and Edelman’s is no exception. I attended her speech, and while I found myself admiring her eloquence, her policy suggestions struck me as tired and uninspired. Indeed, if I closed my eyes, she sounded a great deal like the garden variety Democrats who populate the cable outlets and shill for President Obama.

Her first specific recommendation involved support for more comprehensive State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) legislation. The latest version of SCHIP was signed into law by President Obama on February 4th. The premise of SCHIP sounds reasonable enough – no one wants poor, sick kids to lack healthcare. But a variety of pundits, policymakers, and economists have convincingly argued that the legislation is deeply flawed. Michael Cannon of the Cato Institute makes the case that SCHIP has drifted from its original laudable goal of providing insurance for the truly needy and is instead well on its way to becoming a middle class entitlement. In other words, a large portion of children covered under the newest SCHIP would otherwise be covered under private insurance. This makes sense: when the government is offering free healthcare, there is no incentive to look for it in the private market. Cannon likewise contends that very little empirical evidence supports the idea that expanding SCHIP actually leads to improving health outcomes for children.

Edelman then encouraged her audience to support a second specific piece of legislation – Obama’s current stimulus package – which at the time of this writing had just worked its way through the Senate and appeared headed to the President’s desk. Whether this stimulus bill will actually help children in the long term is doubtful, especially given the tremendous debt it leaves for future generations. The stimulus package is larded with so many special interest giveaways that even moderate Democrats have struggled mightily with the idea of supporting it. Again, a variety of economists reject the notion that government spending will elevate economic performance; many have labeled the legislation wasteful and unlikely to create sustainable jobs.

The central theme in Edelman’s two recommendations is greater government spending. Her policy solutions seem to be (a) taxpayer money, (b) more taxpayer money, and (c) should options (a) and (b) fail, even more taxpayer money. Serious policy ideas that might build common ground with conservatives or libertarians – school choice plans for poor kids come to mind – were conspicuously absent from her presentation. And anyone looking for even a sprinkling of personal responsibility rhetoric – the idea that the poor sometimes make destructive choices that put their children in disadvantaged circumstances – would walk away disappointed. In Edelman’s world, the wealthy in America are always out to get the children, and evil forces like “rampant greed” and “cradle to prison pipelines” exert a completely deterministic influence on the lives of the poor.

Edelman is certainly not the first, or only, politician to employ apocalyptic rhetoric in the name of children to defend questionable policies. The mantra of “saving the children” can be used to promote humanitarian goals, but it can also be used to justify all sorts of government intrusion, violations of civil liberties, and the perpetuation of initiatives that are costly and ineffective (the D.A.R.E. program, anyone?). There is also a debate-killing logic behind Edelman’s words: opponents who might reject her demands are automatically placed in the “I hate children” column.

Edelman seems particularly good at leveraging guilt, especially when she wraps it in biblical language. Perhaps it’s because she refined this technique in the mid 1990s, when she was a leading opponent of welfare reform legislation advocated by Bill Clinton and the Republican Congress. These landmark 1996 welfare reform measures have proven to be, by most empirical accounts, extraordinarily successful, but Edelman opposed it with a ferociousness that strains the imagination. In an open letter to President Clinton a few months before the legislation passed, she claimed that welfare reform “will make more children poor and sick” and called it both an “anti-child assault” and “national child abandonment.” The fact that Edelman was spectacularly wrong on that policy should at least give us pause in following her dictates.

Negotiation and compromise do not seem to be her strong suits either. Near the end of the speech, she claimed indignantly “don’t tell me we don’t have the money” for the stimulus, and used the Wall Street bailout as an object lesson. I have a problem with this on two counts. First, the fact that Congress passed an ineffective costly bailout a few months ago does not justify the passage of this one. Second, this is precisely the time when we need both avid critics and proponents of the President’s plan to engage in reasoned debate about the consequences of that plan; after all, close to $800 billion dollars are at stake.

I did find myself agreeing with Edelman at the end of her speech when she implored the audience to do 10% more for those around them. We should in fact do everything we can to assist our friends, neighbors, and yes, our children during these difficult economic times. We shouldn’t, however, assume that statist and wasteful government programs represent the best way, or the Christian way, to do so.

Dr. Vaughn May is Chair of the Department of Political Science in the College of Arts and Sciences.

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