Decades of Distortion - Page 8

The Think Tank Presidency

Under Ronald Reagan's Presidency the Right's anti-welfare themes were sharpened and the message of personal responsibility (as opposed to communal support) became more pronounced. Reagan built on racial conflicts by popularizing the disingenuous image of the African American "welfare queen" who is a rich con artist.200

The Reagan administration's public policy initiatives were substantially shaped by and dependent on New Right think tanks. Reagan's policy regarding AFDC was largely influenced by three books, each a product of these think tanks. Losing Ground, by Charles Murray,201 and Wealth and Poverty, by George Gilder,202 both were financially supported by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Mandate for Leadership was published by the Heritage Foundation.203 All three echoed the themes developed in the 1960s and 1970s - that the receipt of public assistance creates immorality and dependence, undermines values, and increases poverty.

George Gilder's Wealth and Poverty, edited by Neoconservative Midge Dector, was distributed to members of the Reagan cabinet as "intellectual ammunition."204 Best known for its supply-side economics theme, Wealth and Poverty described in great detail why the existence of AFDC is the root cause of poverty because, among other reasons, it destroys the father's key role and authority within the family.205 Gilder describes the "life of the poor" as "characterize[d] everywhere" by "resignation and rage, escapism and violence, short horizons and promiscuous sexuality."206

Charles Murray, in his 1984 book Losing Ground, popularized the idea that poor people are motivated primarily by economic incentives, and used the economic decisions of a hypothetical couple, Phyllis and Harold, to "prove" how illegitimacy, crime, and family deterioration are caused by AFDC payments and rules.207 In what at the time was viewed as a radical proposal, Murray advocated the abolition of AFDC.208 Ten years later, his prescient words were cited by the libertarian Cato Institute in urging President Clinton to "end welfare as we know it."209

Although Murray's use of data and his conclusions were quickly destroyed by other researchers,210 he has become a leading policy spokesperson on welfare issues since his book's publication. This is true largely because of a concerted marketing strategy on the part of the Manhattan Institute,211 which kept the book in the public eye for many months.212

The Heritage Foundation's Mandate for Leadership is a 1000-page tome that was presented to the Reagan transition team one week after Reagan was elected.213 The success of this book as a Washington, D.C. best seller involved weeks of pre-marketing: advance briefings with sympathetic reporters and leaks of portions of the book to journalists.214 While it did not contain detailed recommendations advocating for reductions and restrictions in most welfare programs, it discussed fraud, waste, and abuse in the Food Stamp program, the school lunch program, and all the programs operated by the US Department of Health and Human Services (including AFDC), often implying that "non-needy" individuals were receiving benefits. 215 It emphasized the importance of maintaining the distinction between "worthy" and "unworthy" poor in administering welfare programs versus social insurance programs.216 Finally, it set the stage for Reagan's reliance on the Heritage Foundation for policy guidance.217

In this role, the Heritage Foundation developed and marketed many of the welfare reform ideas adopted by the Reagan Administration. For instance, Stuart Butler, in a 1980 article, bolstered Reagan's imagery specifically connecting welfare and race. In discussing the removal of government intervention in urban "slums", and advocating Enterprise Zones in order to reverse the decline of American cities,218 Butler stated that over half of the country's Black population now lives in the large cities, compared with only 25 percent of white Americans, and that over 20 percent of urban families are headed by women. The South Bronx, which has lost 20 percent of its residents during the last 10 years, has lost less than 3 percent of its welfare cases.219

Also in Policy Review, a group of New Right and Reagan Administration authors, asked to consider an imaginary utopian conservative state, conclude that "the ideal conservative state keeps interference with our lives to a minimum because that maximizes our freedom to be whatever it is we are intended to be...individual rights come from God and the purpose of government is only to secure those rights."220 Yet in this utopia, welfare payments must be coupled with incentives to follow "traditional" values.221 Further, the authors judge that our current "materially successful society" wants to give recipients more than they think they need themselves.222 And again, showing a vast ignorance of the complexity of family relationships, as well unquestioned patriarchal assumptions, the authors state:

In a conservative utopia, every man would have the opportunity to earn enough money to buy a home and enable his wife to be a full-time mother to their children. No laws or taxes would discriminate against the family or provide disincentives to the care of children by the family.223

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Decades of Distortion

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