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Nation Seeking Common Standards for Social Policies : Move reflects a hunger for uniform rules of behavior that transcend politics and cultural differences.

Look around at the most powerful ideas emerging in education, crime and welfare policy and the same current runs through them: a hunger for firm and simple rules. From Washington to the individual states, shrewd leaders in both parties are trying to ground social policies in an idea so old it seems new: that common standards of behavior can and should be applied to everyone. If this inchoate movement had a motto, it might be: “No excuses, no exceptions.” Historian Fred Siegel calls this emerging policy trend the “end to exculpation.”

The impulse to impose common standards is advancing along two tracks. The no-excuses policy line attempts to assure uniformit y of treatment--so that minimum standards are imposed on everyone, regardless of circumstance.

That sentiment runs through the new national educational standards, which establish uniform expectations for rich and poor students alike; the proliferating municipal ordinances against aggressive panhandling, which establish minimum rules of public conduct even for the homeless and destitute; and the push in Congress and states from Colorado to Georgia to treat violent young people the same as all other criminals by lowering the age at which juveniles can be tried as adults.

The no-exceptions line of policies attempts to ensure certainty of treatment--by restricting government institutions, from schools to courts, from granting exemptions to established standards. That idea is motivating the three-strikes provisions that require life imprisonment for three-time convicted felons; the truth-in-sentencing laws that require prisoners to serve a fixed percentage of their time; the two-year time limit that President Clinton has proposed for welfare recipients and the Dianne Feinstein-sponsored amendment approved by the Senate last month that generally would require all school districts receiving federal money to expel for at least a year any student found with a gun in class.

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These policies expose a basic fault line between elite and popular opinion. Academic experts and editorial commentators mostly view ideas such as three-strikes and the two-year welfare time limit not as simple but simplistic, insensitive to nuance, and unforgiving of human imperfection. But it is the very certainty of these policies--the clarity and even rigidity of their message--that makes them overwhelmingly popular with the public.

“What people believe is, as a country, we’ve lost sight of the fundamentals and spent too much time arguing about the exceptions to the rules, rather than the rules themselves,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.

The popularity of these ideas testifies to the anxiety over America’s moral direction. Implicit in the push for embedding simple rules in public policy is the fear that simple rules are no longer being taught in private life. In part, this thrust represents the belief that when parents cannot set or maintain clear standards, society must--a calculation most nakedly apparent in the proliferation of youth curfew statutes nationwide. Said Garin: “People feel the reason we are in trouble with our values is the failure to insist on standards.”

Although many of these ideas are as attractive to moderate Democrats as to Republicans, the common-standards agenda directly challenges the cultural world view of the post-1960s left. The belief that uniform rules can transcend racial and ethnic differences rejects the dominant academic ideology of multiculturalism, which calls for public policy to bend to those differences. And the idea that all must meet the same objective standards is an arrow at the concept of disparate impact that has guided liberal thought on race relations for the past quarter-century.

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As a legal matter, the disparate-impact doctrine holds that seemingly neutral standards (like a business requiring high school diplomas for new employees) can be racially discriminatory if they disproportionately affect members of one race.

Extrapolated from the legal to political arena, disparate-impact logic inspires the principal objections when common standard proposals are raised. Some liberals resisted the national educational standards, for example, for fear that a disproportionate number of students from low-income neighborhoods might flunk them; in the crime debate, House liberals led by the Congressional Black Caucus asserted that tougher sentencing policies would mean the incarceration of a disproportionate number of minorities.

Those pushing elements of the common-standards agenda argue that instead of focusing on how policies affect specific groups, government should ask how it affects the whole. Moreover, proponents like Rob Teir, general counsel of the American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, argue that poor communities suffer when they are effectively exempted from uniform standards--for instance by leaving students with the impression that the schools don’t believe they can learn.

Even so, the left has legitimate questions about whether, in practice, simplicity and certainty can produce irrationality: Congress recognized as much in the crime bill awaiting final action by providing potential waivers from mandatory minimum sentences for first-time, nonviolent drug offenders now jamming expensive prison space.

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And liberals are right to question whether politicians will prove as enthusiastic about applying common standards to powerful interests as to the dispossessed. One example: as several members of the Congressional Black Caucus pointedly asked earlier this year, if it is reasonable to expect a young woman to ween herself from government assistance after two years, why shouldn’t the same standard be applied to farmers or dozens of other interests receiving indefinite government subsidies?

Despite those objections, the common-standards agenda is almost certainly going to advance because it reflects the public’s hunger for restoring basic rules of conduct. For government at all levels, the real challenge will be finding a reasonable balance between refusing to accept anti-social behavior and ignoring the objective conditions that can contribute to it.

It’s reality, not relativism, to acknowledge that young people growing up amid violence, broken families and enervating poverty face enormous barriers to meeting middle-class standards of conduct and educational performance. That doesn’t mean society should condone self-destructive or violent behavior--but it does mean Clinton has a point when he says that while government is demanding responsibility, it must also do more to expand opportunity.

That synthesis is Clinton’s unique contribution to thinking about social policy. But both political parties are resisting the deal. Liberals like aid without standards (as in more help for welfare recipients without the common standard of time limits). Conservatives like standards without aid (as in tougher penalties for lawbreakers without social programs aimed at deterring crime).

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But it is the linking of standards and aid that makes possible a broad social consensus. The flawed but valuable crime bill underscores the point: After years of gridlock, Clinton and Congress have brought it to the brink of passage only by combining punishment, law enforcement and prevention. Politically and, more important, morally, common standards and common obligations are inextricably bound.

Ideas in Action

The common standards agenda is influencing federal initiatives such as the “Goals 2000" Education bill, the crime bill and President Clinton’s welfare proposal. But many of the ideas are already turning up in state and city initiatives. Here’s a sampling:

States imposing three-strikes laws or similar provisions for repeat offenders California Connecticut Georgia Indiana Kansas Maryland New Mexico North Carolina Virginia Washington Wisconsin ***

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States imposing time limits on welfare recipients Colorado Florida Iowa South Dakota Vermont Wisconsin ***

Cities imposing ordinances restricting aggressive panhandling Albuquerque Atlanta Baltimore Cincinatti Dallas Los Angeles Memphis Portland (Oregon) San Francisco Seattle Tulsa Washington, D.C. Sources; American Alliance for Rights and Responsibilities, National Conference of State Legislatures; Department of Health and Human Services


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