Now that millions of words have been devoted to assessing the mixed
legacy of Ronald Reagan's presidency, let's take a few hundred to recall
one of the attempts by liberals to respond and counter Reagan and his
strategies. Since his anti-government philosophy is as alive as Reagan
is dead, these responses are also still very much in play.
The most resilient of these responses, one that gained traction late in
Reagan's second term, is made up of language and policies that fall
under the rubric of "Kids as Politics," to borrow the title of an
influential 1987 memo by pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. (I had a
yellowing photocopy of this memo in my files for years before deciding
just a few weeks ago that I could safely throw it out; fortunately, like
everything else, it's now on the web.)
It's hard to imagine now, but twenty years ago the idea that children
could serve as a political theme was fresh and could even be
controversial. When Bruce Babbitt, then governor of Arizona, devoted his
entire 1985 State of the State address to children, he was mocked by his
state's major paper for feeding the voters "quiche" and evading the
"meat and potatoes" of Arizona politics: dams and development. The
newspaper was playing on the popularity at the time of an offensive book
called Real Men Don't Eat Quiche. In the early 1980s, when only two
women served in the Senate and two as governors, "children's issues"
still belonged on the feminine margin of politics.
Greenberg, in his memo two years later, admitted as much. "There is a
temptation," he wrote, "to view kids as soft, secondary and timeless...
Candidates care about kids but also about motherhood, and few candidates
have ever won office on such a platform."
"But 'kids' in the present period are different," Greenberg argued.
"When candidates talk about kids, they are talking about the fundamental
economic and social terrain on which Democrats must run." Improvement in the
living conditions and future prospects for children was not the only or
even the primary goal. Rather, kids would help Americans "rediscover
government." "Kids bring the Democrats back into the homes of average
voters, speaking about economic issues of a fundamental sort. ... Kids
and public policy are a natural and credible combination."
Kids could serve this grownup purpose because "kids are an umbrella,
under which white working and middle class voters and black and Hispanic
voters can find a common home. Kids are a common currency across race
and class." In other words, kids would be the key to the universalist
vision of government based on programs that reach "a huge cross-class
constituency," in the words of sociologist and later Greenberg
collaborator Theda Skocpol.
Twenty years after the Babbitt speech, how has kids-as-politics fared?
Measured purely by governmental response, it has been a surprising
success. In 1999, the Congressional Budget Office added up all the
changes in spending through tax credits and entitlement programs for
low-income families with children since 1984, the year before Babbitt.
To eliminate the effects of population growth and other distractions,
the CBO looked at what spending in 1999 would have been under the
policies of 1984, and compared it to what was actually spent that year.
The difference was $45 billion a year -- $5.6 billion under 1984
rules, and $51.7 billion under the 1999 rules.
This dramatic change in federal investment in children, little noticed
at the time, had two major and several minor components. The major
components were a gradual but massive expansion of Medicaid to cover
poor children, near-poor children, and their parents, rather than just
welfare recipients; and expansions of the Earned Income Tax Credit,
notably in the Tax Reform Act of 1986 and the Clinton budget bill of
1993. The other components included the State Children's Health
Insurance Program; increased child-care spending under the welfare
reform bill; and the original version of the child tax credit, which
offered $500 per child and was not refundable for families without tax
liability. This study did not take into account discretionary spending,
such as a 500 percent increase in Head Start funding between 1984 and 1999, and
it does not include subsequent increases in the child tax credit, which
will be $1,000 per child in 2006 and is now partially refundable to
Another way to assess the policy achievements of kids-as-politics is to
score the 1991 report of the National Commission on Children, chaired by
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV. The bipartisan commission's
great success was in forcing social conservatives to acknowledge the
need for economic supports for children. But the commission's call for a
$1,000 refundable child tax credit, a children's health insurance
program, improved child support enforcement, more investment in child
care, and increased funding for Head Start were graciously dismissed as
unrealistic because of the $52 billion price tag. Nonetheless, almost
every one of those recommendations has now been implemented or is on
track. (The State Children's Health Insurance Program -- S-CHIP -- falls
far short of the universal program for kids and pregnant women the
commission proposed, but S-CHIP combined with the Medicaid expansion has
given some creative governors the means to finance something close to
100% coverage for kids.)
In 1984, children's programs amounted to little more than a
minimalist safety net tied to a welfare system that reached only
families well below the poverty line; they now incorporate a full range of
programs, which are largely tied to work, reach well up into the working
poor, and are almost as untouchable as the retirees' programs,
Medicare and Social Security. This is a transformation in social
priorities as significant as the Great Society, and it is mostly for the
better. Meanwhile, programs for working-age adults without children --
who make up the vast majority of the uninsured, for example -- are
virtually non-existent. The conservative agenda often seems to cut
carefully around children and children's programs as around paper dolls,
leaving them untouched while ripping to shreds the general economic security
This is not to say that these are golden days for American children. The
child poverty rate began to rise again in 2000 and has kept going up;
by many other measures children are doing worse or not doing as well
as the level of investment would lead one to expect. That's simply
because the larger economic forces -- the erosion of the value of the
minimum wage; the increase in unstable, low-wage, low-benefit jobs;
radical income inequality; the collapse of unemployment insurance and
other safety net programs; and the time pressures of balancing work and
family -- are so much bigger than the meliorative effect of these
And this is where kids-as-politics has fallen short. It failed to meet
the promise of raising "economic issues of a fundamental sort." Rather,
it has allowed government to build a system of supports for children
that is totally separate from the economic questions and does not even
acknowledge the larger economic trends that hurt children. Children are
protected almost as economic innocents. They are not responsible for
their parents' economic circumstances, but their parents and other
adults are held entirely responsible for their own. What Greenberg
argued was a strength of kids-as-politics -- that "kids are a common
currency across race and class" -- seems now to be a weakness. Because
kids are perceived as transcending race and class, they allow
politicians of the right to talk about children and appear compassionate
while entirely evading the realities of class and economics that
undergird the condition of children.
Nor has kids-as-politics succeeded in helping Americans "rediscover
government," for the same reasons. "Compassionate conservatism"
redefines government as providing for those who cannot provide for
themselves, principally children. But government in this view has no
role in creating the conditions under which families can thrive, as
individuals can build for themselves the base of economic and personal
security that will enable them to form and raise healthy families. Thus
these carefully segregated children's programs can appear protected,
even as government as a whole is denigrated and stripped of resources
and capacity. (And it is all an illusion, of course: When federal
deficits approach 7% of GDP, [as is projected to happen in 15 years], then unless taxes are raised, either these programs will be cut or politicians will be forced to choose between
them and the programs for retirees.)
This may have been simply a tactical failure. Perhaps liberals, as so
often happens, got caught up in the programmatic details of their
success, and forgot to make the connections that Greenberg was urging
them to make to more fundamental economic and political questions. Or
perhaps it could be argued that kids-as-politics worked beautifully
under Clinton, but like everything else since 2001, was perverted into a
form that served the short-term political agenda of the corporate Right.
But I think there was also a shortcoming in the underlying strategy. It
assumed too much. It assumed that talking about kids would automatically
lead to talking about the economy and government, without showing how
that would happen. The lesson, I believe, is that if you want to talk
about the economy, inequality, insecurity, and the merits of government,
you have to be willing to talk about those very things, and not cloak
them under a safe "umbrella" such as "kids."
Recently liberals have become entranced by the idea that we need a new
"frame" for our ideas, turning in particular to the suggestions of the
Berkeley linguist George Lakoff. As this process goes forward, we should
remember that such framing is not new, and kids-as-politics was a pretty
good one. Both its enormous successes and its glaring weakness should be
Mark Schmitt is the director of policy for the U.S. Programs of the Open Society Institute, and a former congressional staffer. His blog is The Decembrist, which can be accessed at http://markschmitt.typepad.com/decembrist.
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