Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks and a Panel Discussion With Community Leaders on Welfare Reform

February 11, 1987

The President. Well, I want to thank all of you for coming here today. Usually when I come to this room it's to speak to a visiting group, but today I think I'm here mostly to listen. And I know that what I'm about to hear will change the way America looks at poverty and welfare. This month we're sending up to the Congress our welfare reform package. And this package was shaped in many ways by you in this room, including the five who are up here with me. You know, when I think of the welfare system, it reminds me of a story. And I know some here have heard me tell this before, and maybe everybody knows it, but pretend that you haven't heard it because I like to tell this story. [Laughter]

It's the story about the parents with the two children, two sons. And one of them was a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist, and the other one was an incurable optimist. And they thought they were both so unrealistic that they talked to a psychiatrist about it. And he said he thought he could solve the problem. And they said, "Well, what?" "Well," he said, "let's get the most magnificent set of toys any boy ever had, and we'll put them in a room. We'll take the pessimist there, and then we'll turn him loose. And when he sees those toys and knows they are all for him, he'll get over being a pessimist." And they said, "What are you going to do about the optimist? .... Well," he said, "I have a friend who's got a racing stable and," he said, "we can get quite a quantity of what they clean out of the stable. And we'll put that in another room, and when the optimist has seen his brother get those toys and that he gets that, he'll get over being an optimist." [Laughter] Well, they did it. And finally, after a period, they then went in and followed in where the boy was with the toys. And he was sitting there crying, and they said, "What are you crying about?" And he said, "Well, I know somebody's going to come and take these away from me." [Laughter] And they went down to the room with the optimist. And he was on top of that pile of stuff, and he was throwing it over his shoulder as fast as he could. And they said, "What are you doing?" He says, "There's got to be a pony in here somewhere." [Laughter] Well, today we're going to hear from some of those who've found the pony.

As you know—but maybe those from the press don't—'m the past year we've been going around the country asking the experts about how the welfare system works and doesn't work. Now, asking experts is not a new thing in the area of welfare reform. Time and again over the years, government has inquired of professors and welfare professionals why people are poor and why they stay poor. And, forgive me for saying this, but the result has been a welfare system that's very good at keeping people poor.

But when we began to look at welfare reform, we changed the experts and we changed the questions. For the last year our experts have been people who know welfare firsthand, who've actually been on welfare, particularly who've gotten on and gotten off. And we've talked to hundreds of these people. We've talked to hundreds more who've set up self-help groups in their communities—self-help groups that really worked and that really helped neighborhood people become self-sufficient. And these have been our experts. And our questions have been: How'd you do it? How did you get off welfare? How did you become self-sufficient? How did you set up a group to help yourselves and your neighbors?

Now, I've been told that this has been the first time in the history of the welfare system that government has asked not how people fail—that's how they get on welfare and stay on—but how they succeed. And that is, how they get off welfare?

And I'm told it's the first time ever that government has gone, as we have, not to the people who can give you a theory about getting people off of welfare, but to the people who've done it themselves, in practice, or helped others do it. Success, not failure; practice, and not theory. And that's what has shaped our welfare reform proposal, and that's what we've come to hear about today. So, now let me turn this meeting over to the experts.

Mr. Hobbs. Mr. President, first this morning, we're going to hear from Sister Monica Thomann, from East Liverpool, Ohio. Sister Monica is the second-most senior member of this panel, Mr. President. [Laughter] And she spent 42 years teaching at elementary and secondary levels and then went into the self-help business to try to help senior citizens to get the services they need and has found since then that that's developed into a very healthy project. So, Sister Monica.

Sister Monica. Thank you. Mr. President, Ceramic City Senior Center is in East Liverpool, Ohio, of the tristate area of Pennsylvania, West Virginia. We're across the bridge from West Virginia and 5 minutes from Pennsylvania. We are really an unnamed Appalachia area. We have no business, large business, or industry in the area. Forty—well, I would say, 30 percent of the people are unemployed. There are 15,000 residents in East Liverpool—4,000, according to the 1980 census, are senior citizens over the age of 60. And a study of EDATA done in 1984 showed 46 percent of them below poverty level.

Well, these senior citizens needed help. They needed to feel dignified in their existence. So, our senior center was established in 1979 with Federal dollars to renovate and purchase this property. Now we provide services in that 3,200 square-foot building to 1,700 seniors. These services help them stay in their own environment. And that is something that needs to be done. It also provides them with knowledge of their own talents and skills so that they can not only help themselves but that they will then help others.

Soldiers and sailors on relief have come to our assistance. General relief workers will spend their time with us and give us the help that we need. We have used the title 5 senior aid program out of the Department of Labor. And those four people spending 20 hours a week provide the leadership that is needed to help our 387 volunteers provide these services to the other people of the community. Of course, when you receive government funds then there are a number of records that have to be kept. And so, we have to have these people trained in the keeping of the records. We are proud of our 387 volunteers. They help us provide friendly visiting services, telephone reassurance services, health assessment services, so that the seniors can have almost an entire physical and being prevented from having diseases that would debilitate them. We have socialization, of course, that keeps the seniors knowing each other, feeling comfortable with each other, and also getting out of their homes, so that they will then be able to help other people.

We provide some chore services—laundry for about 30 shut-ins each week—and our volunteers do that work. We have a kitchen that provides, I'd say, anywhere from 25 to 150 meals daily, twice a week. With the jobs bill food that was given out at one time, we established an emergency feeding site for the unemployed. And, at times, we feed 300 of them. And the senior volunteers help prepare and serve those meals.

We received two vehicles from the 16-B2 program, using the UMTA funds. And that provides transportation for about 420 seniors, using the drivers and the volunteer escorts to take these seniors about 28,000 miles a year to nutrition, socialization events, cultural places, medical appointments, and personal shopping. I feel, then, that our senior volunteers, many of them on the RSVP program, have not only become valuable assets to the community, but they have made other people, of their own peers, feel important. Yet without the Federal dollars giving us that base of operation, there is no way that we could have done this—making these people feel the need to continue living.

We have established a co-op, because we don't just want handouts, but we want to help these people help themselves. This coop, then, helps to extend their funds and provide nourishing food. We have joined with SHARE food bank and are trying to establish a farm in which they will grow their own truck vegetables and then either sell them or can them or freeze them for the winter. We are involved in any number of projects, one of which will be to develop a shared living facility. I think perhaps I've used my time.

Mr. Hobbs. Thank you very much, Sister Monica.

Next, let me introduce to you Earlene White, from Norfolk, Virginia, and her husband, Nelson, who's in the audience—as the two of them cofounded the organization called Parental Involvement Network, or PIN. And it came out of the problems they had with the busing situation in Norfolk. So, let's hear from her.


Mrs. White. Thank you. Contrary to popular belief, black parents are strongly in favor of neighborhood schools. In Norfolk, where courts approved an end to busing of elementary school students for the purpose of racial balance, parents were given the option of to bus or not to bus. Given this choice, black parents chose not to bus by a whopping 86-percent majority. We had always known that the blacks who actually had to deal with busing did not like it. This clearly points out that agencies need to interact with grassroots people to solve problems relating to welfare and education. When we attempted to inform civil rights and religious leaders of the true feelings in the black community, the first thing they wanted to know was what were our professional credentials. They failed to realize that grassroots people do not need a whole lot of credentials to express their concerns or to develop some expertise in solving their problems.

Since the media was only listening to black groups advocating busing, my husband, Nelson, got the idea to organize the black parents who oppose busing—thus, the Parental Involvement Network. We went door-to-door collecting signatures to present to the school board. We felt that 1,200 signatures was enough to convince both the school board and civil rights groups that there was substantial black support for an end to busing. We did this with a cadre of 15 parents. And in September '86, 8,000 black students returned to neighborhood schools where their parents have a greater opportunity to interact with the schools. We constantly help poor parents to understand how the school system works and to get the best out of it for their children. Education and welfare dependence are clearly related. In dealing with welfare parents, we found that more day care was needed—that even if they got a job the funds they received are stopped before they can get on their feet. Some change is needed in this area of transferral from welfare to becoming a working-class parent.

Mr. Hobbs. Thank you, Earlene. We now move on to Tony Enriquez, from Oakland, California, who is in charge of one of the longest running self-help efforts in the United States—the Spanish Speaking Unity Council, which was started in 1964.


Mr. Enriquez. Okay, thank you. The Spanish Speaking Unity Council in Oakland, California, was started as a grass roots organization in 1964, but we have grown to a community development corporation with assets of over $15 million. We operate a continuing care of services to our community from infant child care services to elderly services. We provide services in employment and training, both youth and young adults, housing programs for families and elders, emergency housing and family needs, small business technical assistance, and community economic development assistance and project development. More specific to today's panel discussion, we operated a supported work program for over 10 years, working with long-term AFDC recipients, welfare mothers.

This supported work program provided avenues of opportunity to long-term welfare mothers to come back into the job stream. Through a welfare grant diversion process, we were able to provide job opportunities in a supported work environment. In the operation of our own small businesses, we have provided a vehicle to bring back self-reliance and capacity-building into the lives of many welfare mothers. In our organizational philosophy of integrating community economic development into the delivery of social services, we have been able to build community and individual capacity to alleviate poverty in our community. Thank you.

Mr. Hobbs. And finally, and closest to home, Kimi Gray, from Kenilworth Parkside Resident Management Association. Kimi, I know that you had five children on welfare and that you've gotten yourself and them off welfare and sent them all to college. And I think that's an accomplishment in itself worth applause. [Applause] But you've gone far beyond that, so tell us about it.

Mrs. Gray. All right. Mr. President, let me first describe the Kenilworth Parkside community. There are 464 public housing units. We're at the end of nowhere—some folks may refer to it—because we're in ward 7. And they call it the part of the city that's been forgotten. Prior to 1982 only two children within our community had gone to college. There was no heat and hot water in our public housing property. Trash pickup was terrible. And because of that we began to meet ourselves and organize the residents of our community.

And through our efforts we created a program that's named "College, Here We Come," Mr. President, which I know you are familiar with because you awarded us an outstanding award for sending over 582 of our children away to colleges. When those children went away to college, they returned very dissatisfied with our conditions. And because of that, those students and the parents of those students began to develop their own master plan, because we had realized we had had persons to plan for us and had not given us an opportunity to plan for ourselves. And therefore, their plans were not successful because we had no way of participating, really, but to take orders.

Through our master plan we created resident management. And through our resident management concept, we reduced our welfare recidivism. In '82 it was 85 percent. It has now been reduced to 22 percent. We reduced our crime, reduced our teenage pregnancy by 50 percent. We created small businesses. For, you see, the philosophy of our community is that the only way that we could even save our community was beginning to save our families. And how did we save our families? By returning respect and responsibility and pride back to the fathers of our community by employing them first, before we employed the youth. We created the small businesses that are now employing those former welfare recipients, and they are owned by some of the residents of our community. For we knew that the only way we could help ourselves was by saving ourselves—that no one had the obligation to us to do anything for us. We had to do it ourselves.

I feel proud to sit here today because for the first time I know I personally had a direct input on forming this policy. And to my knowledge this has never been done before, where the executive branch of the Government has come down to the community to talk to a former public welfare recipient-to find out how we feel about things, to find out how we felt about being dealt with when it comes to welfare reform. In working with the Kenilworth Parkside community, we have done a need assessment-through our college students—and found that our residents want jobs. We are proud of the rippling effect that our community program has had, around not only the city of Washington, DC, but throughout the United States, to say that we want employment. We do not want welfare; we want independence. And we thank you, Mr. President, for providing us the opportunity.

Mr. Hobbs. Thank you, Kimi, and thanks to all of our panel members. Mr. President, you've heard these success stories. Why don't we talk a little bit about how we can build on them?

The President. Well, believe me, and I know that there are many more like these, and I wish there were time here for a lot of questions that probably people have. And I hope that you will have time to find out more and how these work—for example, Sister, what your experience was in working with the State and cooperation and so forth.

Someone sent me a little item that must have appeared in print someplace. It was in print, it was just cut out, and I don't know where it appeared or anything. But it did give us pause to think. Just a little short thing, and it said: "In an earlier day in America, people lived well, they had plenty to eat, they were independent, they were free, and then the white man came." [Laughter] Well, Thomas Jefferson once wrote: "He knows most who knows how little he knows." In the area of welfare, I think it's clear today that it's time for those of us in Washington to face up to how little we know. You good people have just shown the truth of what columnist William Raspberry wrote recently, that good ideas come not from "Washington, where the headlines are, but out in the country, where the action is."

That, in effect, is what our welfare reform proposal is all about: creating a welfare system that invests in your solutions, and in the solutions of thousands of others like you around America. Our welfare study—it really isn't that thin— [laughter] -"Up From Dependency," which will be released today, names nearly 400 examples of self-help groups across the land. Our reform is intended to start a process that taps this spirit and mobilizes this initiative. And here's what we propose to do. We will ask Congress to approve legislation to allow the States to experiment with the kind of antipoverty ideas that you've told us about here today. Right now Federal laws and regulations limit what the States can do. I was a Governor of a State, and I know how frustrating it could be. And that's why so many of your good ideas can't be tried within the bounds of our current welfare system.

Our proposal retains the current Federal financing role. And the Federal Government will continue to enforce civil rights laws and due process protections. All we will ask from the Congress will be that it waive the many other rules and regulations that prevent State experiments from helping people become independent. In many States—with the limited flexibility we've given in the last 6 years—this experimentation has begun. Some, like Utah and New Jersey, have made great strides. As you know, I've invited all the Governors to the White House later this month to present our welfare proposal and to listen to their thoughts about welfare reform.

But our reform effort does not end with the States and the Governors; it only begins with them. One of the real keys is at the community and neighborhood level-people like yourselves. We want community leaders to draw up reform plans for their own cities and neighborhoods and then to work with State officials to put those plans into practice. We want not 50 experiments, but hundreds and thousands. In short, we want to liberate the creative genius and entrepreneurial energy that we've seen here today and that exists all across America. As one scholar, John McKnight, put it: "I know from years in the neighborhoods that we can rely on community creativity... America is being reinvented little by little in the little places."

There're just a few simple principles all experiments should follow. These are principles that all of us have learned and that you have begun to demonstrate. We've learned, for example, that work is the only genuine path to self-respect and independence. And we learned that any welfare system should offer the incentives and tools to escape welfare, not the incentives to remain dependent on welfare. With these and other lessons in mind, our proposal will ask the Congress to allow those of us in Washington to work with the States in screening reform ideas. We will offer communities and States wide latitude in developing their proposals, but we will also ensure that any initiative supports families and promotes self-reliance.

It's time for the Federal Government to admit to what it doesn't know and start listening to creative Governors like Tom Kean and Booth Gardner, Jim Martin. It's time for the Government to start listening to community self-help groups like yours and the others that Chuck and his group here have identified. It's time, as Charles Murray has written: "to start listening to those we wish to help—not armed with a clipboard and a set of multiple-choice questionnaire items, but with curiosity and patience . . ." Well, that's what we've begun to do this past year, and that's what our reform package will help all of America to do in the years ahead.

You know, I had an experience as Governor, because we came up with a welfare reform plan. And it could only be permitted, under the regulations, as an experiment. And we dealt with and we negotiated with the people in Washington, and we were getting nowhere. And finally, I ordered our people—one of whom was Chuck Hobbs right here, who is responsible for some of that plan—I ordered our people that we would not discuss anything further with Washington unless the President was present. And he came to California, and we went down and met with him. And I scribbled a few notes in the plane on the back of a gin rummy pad. And when we got in the room with the people we'd been dickering with all these years or months and getting no place, I submitted what it was we wanted to do. It was a workfare plan—and what we had accomplished so far in getting ready for it, and it was wonderful. The President just heard me out—and it only took a few minutes—and he just turned to his group and said, "I want this done." You'd be surprised—it happened. But they'd only let us experiment, so we got to do 35 out of the 58 counties in California. And they very carefully omitted the two largest, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But we started our experiment. And there was one benefit that we had not been able to anticipate, and that was that we had gone to every community at every level, and we had said: "Are there things in your community, your county, your district, whatever, that you would be doing if you had the manpower and the money?" We didn't want boondoggles. And they sent back their list of things, yes, that they would do. We screened them to make sure they were useful tasks. So, we approved those useful tasks. And then we told them there is the manpower and the money, and they will soon be reporting to you for work. And then we notified the able-bodied welfare [recipients] that they were to report for this work. But at the same time, we assigned some of our own bureaucracy at the State level from our labor department to be job agents. They were each given a list of names. And they were to watch those people at what they were doing. And I said it is your job to try and make their work there temporary, not the job temporary-but to move them from that to the private sector as fast as possible. And in the midst of the 1973-74 recession, with the great increase in unemployment—through that program, we put 76,000 welfare recipients into private sector jobs and permanent—[inaudible]—

So, this is—I don't want to get caught like—I won't name the President but, I don't want to get caught like him and have me have to be able to turn and say—I've said it in advance of your coming with recommendations. And that's what Chuck has been hearing all about.

One last little thing I want to tell you. I have a letter on my desk that I have to answer. It just arrived. It's from a young man who had a water surfing accident—no, water skiing accident. He is a quadriplegic. He is totally dependent on the Government programs. But attached to his letter is a business card with his name on it. He has an idea for an independent business, a small business, that he is organizing, to start. And the small business will be counseling and advising other disabled people to be able to free themselves from dependency and to become independent. And what he needs, and what I'm certainly going to try and work out for him, is some kind of a bridge from his present dependency to the success there—so that he can get by that bridge. And I think here, of all things, is a success story and an indication of what you've heard up here today. And that is what I've said myself so often—the overwhelming majority of the people on welfare want nothing more than to be independent of it and back out with the rest of us in the workaday world.

Now, I know we just have about used up all the time. I'd even thought maybe I would ask some questions here, but I know that we don't have time for it. But even so, the questions would have been kind of redundant because I think these four individuals made it pretty plain as to what they were doing. And I think as you all exchange information about what others have found can be done, we'll find the answer to this. And it will be an answer, in the American way, which we have neglected for too many years.

Thank you all, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 11:20 a.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building. Charles D. Hobbs, Deputy Assistant to the President for Policy Development, moderated the discussion.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks and a Panel Discussion With Community Leaders on Welfare Reform Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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