NEWS ANALYSIS : Huffington on Defensive in Key Goal of Ending Welfare : Politics: He calls system cruel to poor. Critics say he is unrealistic in thinking private sector can assume burden.
Republican Mike Huffington said he feels so strongly that government must end its role as a welfare provider that it was a primary reason he decided to enter the race for U.S. Senate and to invest more than $10 million from his own fortune to pay for the campaign.
The candidate’s wife, author Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington, said the issue is so important that the couple discussed the possibility last fall of abandoning the campaign and using the money for a foundation. (In the end, they decided the Senate race would be a better platform to win public attention.)
After months of attacking Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein with millions of dollars in television commercials, the Huffington campaign earlier this month unveiled its “central theme"--the proposal that government welfare be replaced with private philanthropy.
“Under the guise of caring for the poor, the federal government has created a monstrous poverty machine--a machine so cruel and destructive that it does more to keep people poor than it does to help them out of poverty,” Huffington said in a speech this week in San Diego. “That is not compassion. It is cruel, it is inhuman, it is wrong, it is unfair and it must end.”
In the context of the national debate about welfare reform, the proposal to end welfare has been limited largely to the blackboards of a few Washington think tanks. Proponents of the idea say Huffington’s campaign could be a national test of the public’s evolving attitude toward welfare.
But so far, the Santa Barbara congressman has quickly found himself on the defensive, both for the idea and for acting as the messenger.
Bob Erlenbusch, executive director of the Los Angeles Coalition to End Homelessness, said, “I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and under the Reagan Administration, they said the same thing. ‘Let’s prove that capitalism works. Let’s prove that the private sector can pick it up.’ What’s happened over the last 10 years is that homelessness has increased about 15% each year.”
The Republican candidate got a taste of how tough it might be to sell his new plan in the San Diego speech, his first on the subject. Huffington told an audience of black entrepreneurs that it is time for the government to transfer its welfare burden to the private sector.
“I firmly believe, that if we allow people to keep more of what they earn, they will begin taking responsibility for each other again,” Huffington said. “My critics say that is unrealistic. Well, I don’t agree. I am an optimist. I believe in the basic goodness of people. I believe that if we give every American an incentive to give their time, their energy, their resources to help their fellow man, they will rise to the challenge.”
After the speech, however, Huffington was peppered with questions and complaints from an audience that remained unconvinced.
“People left here completely laughing,” said the Rev. George Walter Smith, a Republican minister who hosted the event. “This man does not grasp the issues. People were completely disappointed with his lack of understanding the problems.”
Before this year, Huffington had little record as a public advocate on the issue of welfare. In the House, Huffington has largely avoided the welfare reform debate that is under way.
And Huffington concedes that his own record of volunteering at homeless shelters began only this year, well into his campaign for the Senate. Huffington says he has contributed millions of dollars to charity, but he has declined to identify the beneficiaries or make public the tax records that would confirm his philanthropy.
Sociologist Charles Murray and Republican William J. Bennett have recently received national attention--including a surprisingly sympathetic critique from President Clinton--for their analysis of the reasons to end welfare. But Huffington said he could not comment on their work because he has not read it.
“I think the very shallowness of his proposal reveals how little he really knows about this,” said Larry Berg, a political analyst at USC. “A few years ago in another Administration we had a President calling for a thousand points of light. This one would have to be 10 million points of light. It really is a non-credible approach to a serious national problem.”
Berg and others question whether the wealthy former Texas petroleum executive can be a credible sponsor of such major change in poverty programs. “Someone with his background, as wealthy as he is, who undoubtedly in his life has never been involved in any of this, does not have an understanding of the magnitude of the problem,” Berg said.
Huffington said in an interview he believes it would take about 10 years for government to shed its welfare role, though it is unclear how that would occur.
Huffington said he doesn’t know the cost of the current federal welfare system or how much of an increase in charitable giving would be required from private sources to assume the government burden. He is also uncertain which programs he would target for elimination--whether it would be just cash grants or housing, food and other relief aid too.
Huffington said he would maintain government assistance for three types of recipients--those with mental or physical handicaps and “third are those who . . . somehow nobody wants to hire, for whatever reason. I don’t know what they are, but some are people that people just steer away from.”
He endorses three legislative proposals, two of which have been introduced in Congress. One bill would cut welfare benefits to some unwed teen-age mothers as a way to reduce illegitimacy. He also favors a former Reagan Administration proposal that would issue federal welfare money to the states in block grants, allowing them to experiment with a variety of reforms.
The congressman introduced legislation that is described in his current television commercial as a way to encourage more charitable donations. The bill increases tax deductions for contributions.
But the legislation has also been questioned by tax experts who doubt that it would provide enough incentive to substantially increase giving. Under the bill, a couple earning $40,000 who contributed $2,000 would pay $252 less in taxes.
Not surprisingly, Feinstein is among Huffington’s critics who think his vision of a privately operated safety net is “wishful thinking.”
“Respectfully, he has not spent a lot of time on the real streets of San Francisco or Los Angeles or anywhere else, for that matter,” said Feinstein. “Most churches are just barely able to survive today. There do need to be changes in the welfare system, and serious reform. But volunteerism never will be able to do that.”
Last spring, Huffington outlined his theme of welfare and personal responsibility in interviews with reporters. He described welfare as the best example of how well-intentioned government programs can do more harm than good. And he said the issue was at the heart of his philosophy to shrink federal government and turn over more power, responsibility and tax money to the local and community level.
He argued that the timing of his idea was right because America is in the midst of a spiritual revival that will lead to a more selfless society. Huffington said there is evidence in polls and in church attendance.
“I look at this as being a watershed election,” Huffington said. “It’s a change in direction--I really do believe it is happening. . . . I believe people are ready, but they don’t have the leaders to show them the way.”
Although the candidate has little background as an activist on welfare, the theme of personal responsibility as a substitute for government social programs has been a topic of Arianna Huffington’s for more than a decade.
She has lectured on it almost since the time she moved to the United States from Europe in 1981. It is a central theme in her sixth book, released in May--"The Fourth Instinct, The Call of The Soul.”
In the book, Arianna Huffington suggests that the approaching millennium is encouraging “a historic moment such as has not occurred since the Middle Ages gave way to the Renaissance. . . . What I am looking for is . . . a spiritual breakthrough, a new readiness to redefine what it is to be human.”
The candidate agreed.
“We are going to see major changes as we get to the millennium, the year 2000,” he said. “They have said, in past histories, as you get to events like that, there are major changes.”
In Washington today, there is a bipartisan consensus that welfare has failed. The debate has sparked ideas once considered radical from some unlikely sources.
President Clinton’s plan to cut benefits after two years for any recipient who has not found a job used to be an idea exclusive to conservatives. Many conservatives are moving further to the right in search of solutions.
Sociologist Murray, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, fueled momentum for a plan that would deny welfare to anyone having a child out of wedlock with a column he wrote last fall describing illegitimacy as the nation’s biggest problem. Murray proposed ending welfare in his 1984 book, “Losing Ground.”
President Clinton said of Murray’s recent column: “His analysis is essentially right. . . . The question is . . . is it morally right?”
Bennett later pointed to Clinton’s comment as evidence that the political environment is ready to accept even greater change. He suggested Republicans propose an end to welfare, “cold turkey.” Bennett said the change would cause suffering and dislocation, but he said the current system is “exacting a far higher human cost.”
There are plenty, however, who disagree.
Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a moderate Democratic research center that promotes volunteerism as a solution to civic problems, said ending welfare “is a conservative panacea and a myth.”
Marshall said he agrees that community-based organizations are more effective at social cures than the federal government and he hopes welfare reform will transfer more responsibility to private sources. But he warned that there is a limit to how much of the burden can be accommodated by local communities.
“The private sector is not ready to absorb the 14 million people on welfare,” he said. “Our social structures would be overwhelmed. What’s wrong with the conservative approach is that there is no transition from the current system to the wonderful world where private security and philanthropy pick up the slack.”
Both sides agree that Huffington’s campaign could trigger a provocative debate of the issue.
“I think he is courageous in raising it, but I think it is a question whether California is ready to hear it,” said Murray.