Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Just Kidding

James Skillen


June 24, 1996

It's too bad when kids become mere ammunition for political foodfights. Marian Wright Edelman's "Stand for Children" rally a few weeks ago was a way to bash Republican cuts in social programs as posing an unprecedented threat to the well-being of "our children"—as if the trend lines for kids hadn't been downward even as spending was going up. But Texas Rep. Bill Archer, a key architect of Republican welfare reform, was just playing games himself when he blasted back that New Deal and Great Society programs were deliberately designed to "make it worse for the poor."

So it is tempting to dismiss as a ploy a bill entitled "Save Our Children" recently introduced in the House by J. C. Watts (R-Ok.) and Jim Talent (R-Mo.). Yet despite the trendy name, the bill is on the right track. The subtitle tells the story: "The American Community Renewal Act." Here's the idea. Children aren't autonomous individuals, so government can't just pluck them out and improve their lives. Kids thrive when their parents do right, and when their neighborhoods, churches, and political communities support positive choices. So the bill is designed to enhance government support for healthy social institutions.

The bill targets the poorest communities, which it assumes have potential and resources of their own. It requires local and state authorities to agree to cut excessive regulations and taxes that stifle small-scale enterprise. For its part, the federal government would give businesses tax breaks, including a credit for hiring high-risk employees, and would match the funds poor families save in new IRA-type accounts to start a business, purchase a home, or pay for higher education.

Renewal communities would be required to make two key social policy innovations. First, they would have to implement real school choice. Federal dollars would fund scholarships for travel to alternative public schools or for tuition at nongovernmental schools—and local authorities could not put religious schools off limits or choke them with regulations. Second, when communities offer drug treatment programs, they can not exclude religious providers nor pressure them to downplay their religious character. Beneficiaries would always have the option of a non-religious program.

To further strengthen the social infrastructure of renewal communities, the bill proposes a federal tax credit for donations to charities dedicated to serving the poor. The credit would equal 75% of the donated amount, up to $200 ($400 for joint-filers). The idea is for government to encourage citizens to do what is right, not to make it painless.

Unfortunately, the bill has a too restrictive view of fighting poverty. Worried about Legal Services Corp. abuses, it rules out legal help for the poor, although the Bible emphasizes how much the poor need protection from the powerful. And, presuming that groups get involved in politics only to feed at the federal trough, it excludes from the charity tax credit program groups that do any public policy research or advocacy, as if the poor aren't often held down by bad policy—like the restrictive regulations this bill rightly seeks to over-turn!

So parts of the bill need a strong challenge. Still, like the similar ideas championed in the Senate by Dan Coats (R-Ind.) and John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), the bill puts at the heart of federal and state social policy the vital idea that government should cooperate with the institutions of civil society, not excluding the religious ones. "Save Our Children" is said to have the backing of the House Republican leadership. Hearings may start this week with a vote at the end of July. Representatives who vote for the bill will show that they aren't just kidding about helping kids.

—Stanley Carlson-Thies, Senior Fellow
   Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”