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For the Common Good

A well-thought-out, achievable, and, yes, urgent blueprint for social-welfare reform in the United States has been put together by a study group sponsored by the Ford Foundation. Their report bears the appropriate title of “The Common Good: Social Welfare and the American Future.” It is worthy of your attention.

The strength of the report lies in its proposals for modifying and strengthening existing programs rather than creating an experimental structure to address shortcomings that are so evident. Its principal novelty may well be its most controversial element, a plan to fund about half of the reforms by taxing Social Security benefits that are in excess of what individuals have themselves contributed to the program.

The increased cost of the government share of the reform plan amounts to $29 billion a year, a figure that almost certainly will rise even higher in the future. A tax on Social Security would raise, over the next five years, some $97 billion. Both figures are subject to adjustment, the report acknowledges, taking account of the harsh political climate “in a time of budget deficits and general skepticism about public spending.” Savings would best come through decisions to phase in both the new tax and programs, the report suggests.

But the report stands as a strong argument against delay and postponement. The proposed reforms are, in many instances, highly cost effective, as in the case of prenatal care, expansion of Head Start preschool education, and improved teen-age pregnancy prevention and school retention programs. Furthermore, the reforms address fundamental issues of inequity that pose extraordinary problems for the nation, including the whole sphere of health care and long-term care of the aged, and the need to help people escape the welfare ranks through education and job training programs.

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“As a result of years of neglecting our social infrastructure, the divisions in American society have increased in ways that threaten quality of life, peace of mind, and the economic future,” the report concludes. We agree. And it is that argument that lends urgency to reform.

The Ford Foundation panel that drew up the final report was led by Irving S. Shapiro, former du Pont chief executive officer, and included persons distinguished in business, labor, education and law, among them the chairman and chief executive officer of Times Mirror, the parent of this newspaper. The character of those making the recommendations seems part of a remarkable development of recent months as more and more groups of leading private citizens have taken initiatives on public policy in the absence of leadership either at the federal or state governmental level. In fact, this report overlaps some of the other recent studies by distinguished panels of citizens such as the proposals for reform of the health-care system from the National Leadership Commission on Health Care, and proposals for expansion of Medicaid from the Health Policy Agenda for the American People.

None of these initiatives will be easy to implement because of the hostile climate that has been encouraged by political leaders in recent years. It has become clear that program cuts alone cannot balance the budget. Because of the resistance to increased taxes, successful programs have been left under-funded, thus postponing remedies to increasing problems that will only grow more costly to cure as action is delayed. The perilously high cost of inaction is already visible in the crushing burden on prisons, rising gang warfare, high infant mortality, enormous perinatal costs for babies born prematurely or drug addicted, declining educational performance, expanding homeless populations, increasing poverty and the absence of health insurance for 37 million people.

Perhaps the Ford Foundation report, with its solid base of careful research, will facilitate an appropriate response before further delay further escalates the cost, both the social and the monetary.

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