Bill Clinton photo

Remarks to the Children's Defense Fund Conference

March 11, 1993

The President. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, distinguished members of the Children's Defense Fund board, Secretary Reich, and Secretary Riley. Did you see the way Secretary Reich rushed out when they said the President of the United States? [Laughter] That's not true. I pushed him through the door so I could get a laugh out of it. [Laughter]

My dear friend Marian Wright Edelman, as usual, your introduction has left me nothing to say. I will say this: I know a lot of people will come here and tell you how much they appreciate people who are children's advocates. Not very many people appreciate it enough to marry one, and I did. [Laughter] I also have savaged the ranks of the CDF board. My wife had to resign because she was married to a Presidential candidate. And then Donna Shalala had to resign because I gave her a job— [laughter] -which on Sunday she'd probably rather swap for being chair of the Children's Defense Fund board.

I am delighted to be here. I look out on this crowd and I see many old friends. You know, a lot of people ask me what it's like to be President. And I don't know if I can explain it, but it is different. People either want to walk around on tippy-toe or take a baseball bat and whack your head off. There seems to be nothing in between. The other day Hillary had a number of people into the White House on the first floor to some sort of meeting, and I got off on the floor, and I had to go someplace else. And all of a sudden, all these people were there. And I walked out into this crowd, and I started shaking their hands. And the guy who was with me said, "Oh, Mr. President, I'm so sorry that you had to deal with all those people." I said, "That's all right, I used to be one." [Laughter] I hope I will be again some day. Meanwhile, I'm going to depend on you and the American people to keep me just as close to humanity as I possibly can.

I've just come from a remarkable event in Maryland with a number of Members of the Congress who are friends of the Children's Defense Fund. We were there; Secretary Reich was there with me; we flew back. And we were at a plant that belongs to Westinghouse. It used to be a defense plant, and it is increasingly becoming a domestic technology plant. And we went there to announce an economic conversion program to try to help more people who are losing their jobs from military cutbacks either in the private or the public sector find new opportunities moving toward the economy of the 21st century.

This is a very important thing. We've been reducing defense since 1985, and no nation would so reduce one sector of its economy that provided so many high-wage, high-growth jobs, that was on the cutting edge of new technology-no other nation would ever have done what we've done with no clear strategy for what to do with all those resources, all those people, to try to help to build our economic base. So we will continue to reduce defense, as we must, but we're trying to plan for the future of those people and those incredible resources.

I saw military technology turn into an electric car that will drive over 80 miles an hour and which may hold the promise of ending our dependence on foreign oil and cleaning up our atmosphere. I saw a police car with a computer screen with visual imaging developed for defense technology, which can now be used immediately to transmit to police officers who have it pictures of missing children, immediately, while they're in their car. I saw a plane with radar technology which just came back from dealing with the difficult incident in Waco, Texas—defense technology—another plane with a different sort of technology now which can be put on all of our commercial air flights to detect wind shears, which is one of the major causes of airline misfortunes now among commercial airlines.

I say all this because everybody says, well, that's a great idea, and it's self-evident, and why haven't we been doing this? But it is simply reflective of a problem we have had in this country for some time, which is that we have undervalued the importance of increasing the capacity of our people. We have talked a lot about a lot of things in America. But when you strip it all away and you look at where we have been, sort of out of sync with many other countries and with where we have to go in the future, it is clear that on a broad range of areas, we have simply undervalued the importance of making a commitment to the idea that we don't have a person to waste, that everybody counts, and that what you can do affects not only your future but mine as well.

These, of course, are the arguments that the Children's Defense Fund has been making since its inception in its struggles to get a better deal for America's children. They have become far more important arguments in the last decade.

In 1985 a remarkable thing happened, a thing altogether laudatory in our country: Our senior citizens became less poor than the rest of us, a thing we can be proud of. People used to have to live in absolute agony wondering what would happen to their parents. You still do if you have long-term care problems. But most elderly people now, because of Social Security and supplemental security income and Medicare and because of the pension reforms of the last several years, can look forward to a security in their later years that 10 or 20 or 30 years ago was utterly unheard of. And it is really a testimony to the farsightedness of our country.

However, at the same time, in the same decade, we began to experience a new class of poor people who were dramatically undervalued. They were little children and their poor parents, usually their single poor parents. And they had no advocates in many councils of power. If it hadn't been for the Children's Defense Fund and a few others who walked with them through life, many of the good things which have been done would not have been done. And all the things which were done were not enough to reverse the trends of the 1980's, when the elderly became less poor and the children became more poor.

Now, because many of you in this room have continued this fight, and because of the decisions the American people made in the last election, we once again have a chance to invest in the hopes and the dreams of our children.

I have asked the United States Congress to embrace a program that recognizes, as was said earlier, that we have two big deficits in this country. We have a huge budget deficit, but we also have a huge investment deficit. It was a cruel irony of the last 12 years that we not only took the Government debt from $1 trillion to $4 trillion, with annual deficits now in excess of $300 million projected for the next few years unless we change it, but we found a way in all of that to actually reduce our investment in our future at the national level.

How could it happen? Well, it happened because of a big military buildup. It happened because of a big tax cut early. It happened because health care costs have been completely out of control. It happened because an underperforming economy didn't produce many revenues. But it happened also because there were not enough people who said we must constant]y invest in the most important thing in a modern society, the capacity of the people to be healthy and strong and good.

So you have all these anomalies. The United States, the world's strongest economy, has the third worst record in the Western Hemisphere for immunizing its children against preventable childhood diseases. The United States, a country that has dominated the economy of the world for the last half a century, has higher rates of adult illiteracy and school dropout and dysfunction among adults than most of its major competitors, and the highest rate of incarceration of any country in the world, something we rank first in.

That bespeaks our inability to make the diversity of our country a source of strength instead of weakness, and to deal with the stark dilemmas of poverty in ways that at least give the children a chance to do better. Well, now we have a chance.

The good news is we know a lot about what works. We've known for years through clear studies that, though not perfect, Head Start and WIC and immunizations really do make a difference. We know that if you give children a better life and you strengthen their families, you make the economy stronger and you free up money to be spent on things like that economic conversion program I just visited today.

We know that if we focus on people and their capacities, it really does work. That's why I was really pleased that the first bill I signed was the Family and Medical Leave Act because it will, even to those who oppose it, make their businesses more productive, not less, by securing family life and making it possible for people to be good parents. That's why the long-term economic plan and the short-term economic stimulus I asked the Congress to embrace includes funds to put our people first: for 700,000 summer jobs for young people; for the beginnings of summer Head Start programs where they don't exist; for beginning to set up the infrastructure of immunization where it isn't, so that we can start to do the work that has to be done.

We have simply got to invest in our people in ways that work. Marian has already said it, but I will reiterate. This budget, if funded by the Congress, will fully fund Head Start and WIC, will create a network of immunization efforts which will permit us to finally immunize our little children against preventable childhood diseases, something that will save, over the long run, 10 bucks for every dollar we put into it. How do you explain, I mean, how can you possibly justify to anybody that our country, with the power of its economy, that produces the vast majority of vaccines produced anywhere in the world, is better only than Bolivia and Haiti in this hemisphere in immunizing our children?

And you know, you have to have a certain core of immunization to make sure that there will be no outbreak of diseases. We are dangerously, perilously close to falling below that core of immunized children in many different areas. This is a big deal, folks.

So I hope that we will have this attitude now that we ought to invest as we cut the deficit. The plan that I presented to the Congress reduces the deficit dramatically, has 150 specific budget cuts, starts with an example from the White House staff. We cut the staff in the next fiscal year 25 percent below the staffing levels that I found when I came. We cut $9 billion out of the administrative costs of Federal agencies. And I mean they're real cuts; they're going into the budget. They cannot be escaped. [Applause] I'm glad you're clapping for that, you know, because the people that are attacking me act like anybody that wants any money from the Government just loves all that bureaucracy you have to put up with. I know better. [Laughter] It's good for you to clap. [Applause]

We also raised some tax money. I saw the proof of an article by David Stockman coming out in a magazine soon which talked about how the clear problem is that the tax base of this country was dramatically, fundamentally, and permanently eroded in 1981, that Social Security's about the same percentage of gross national product today it was back in 1981.

So we have to raise some more money if we want to reduce the debt. But we also try to reverse the investment gap in things that you didn't come here to talk about, like transportation and clean water and better sewage systems, in things that will strengthen the environment and put people to work and increase our productivity, in things like community development operations to add jobs to high unemployment areas, in national service, which Marian mentioned, and in other areas that will increase the capacity of people to work, to grow, to learn, to flourish.

Now, there are people, believe it or not, who, number one, don't want to pass a stimulus package at all because they say the economy's great—that's because most people in Washington are employed; talk to them about that, will you— [laughter] —and who think that this program would be even better if it didn't have any new investment at all.

Now, to be fair to those people, there are basically three lines of attack. You're going to the Hill. I want you to know I need your help. I need your help because there are a lot of people without jobs; there are a lot of people without adequate jobs. Most of the new jobs created in this last round—365,000 last month-hallelujah, that's great, but more than half of them were part-time jobs that don't have health care benefits for the kids and the families.

You need to know what they are saying, the people against whom you must argue. They will say, number one, "We can cut the deficit even more if we just didn't have any investment," or "If we didn't pass any of the President's spending programs, we could cut the deficit as much and raise taxes less."

The problem with that argument is those people think there is absolutely no difference between putting another child in Head Start and keeping somebody working in an agency when the job is no longer needed and can be phased out, in supporting a regulatory apparatus that bas long since lost its justification, in funding a pork barrel project that can't possibly be justified. In other words, these people think anything the Government spends is equally bad. Educating a kid to go to college is the same as continuing the subsidy for sheep or any other program; no difference. Government spending is Government spending is Government spending. There is no difference.

Now, do you believe that in your own lives?

Audience members. No-o-o!

The President. No. I mean, in your lives, if you take home a check every month, is it the same whether you spend it on making a house payment, making a car payment, saving money for your child's education, or just paying for an extra helping at dinner? Of course not. There are distinctions in the relative impact of how you spend your pay, how your business invests its money, and how your Government invests your money. And so when people tell you there's no difference, tell them that's wrong.

And then there is a crowd that say, "Well, these programs don't really make any difference. Head Start doesn't work, and there's no proof Head Start works." Now, this is an interesting argument. Most of those who think there's no proof Head Start works still believe trickle-down economics did.

Until I proposed phasing in the full funding of this program, many of those who themselves objected had previously voted to expand it. To be fair, President Bush praised Head Start at every turn. A few years ago, Senator Dole introduced his own legislation to expand it. Sure, there are serious criticisms rooted in the fact that this is now not a new program. There are people who say it's not evenly good across the country. That is true. There are people who say it could be managed better. That's true. There are people who say that cognitive improvements don't always last more than 2 years after children stop attending, depending on where they are. That's true. One big deal is how strong the parents' involvement really is. There are those who say there ought to be more school-based programs or more home-based programs, and we've worked hard on that at home. All that's true. That is not an excuse not to fully fund Head Start.

Our program will serve more children, but it will also strengthen the quality of Head Start and put some flexibility back into the program so that it can meet the needs of the different communities that are served. But those who choose to ignore the overwhelming evidence of the program's success have an obligation to tell us why more children with high self-esteem and better grades and better thinking skills and better predictable long-term performance is such a bad idea. I think it's a great idea.

But we must, in fairness to the criticisms, become our own most severe critics. That's where you come in, because all of you live out there where these programs work. You could give a better criticism of what's wrong with most of these public programs than those who don't want to fund them. Most of you could. So tell them you know it is up to us to be our own most severe critics.

I just asked the Vice President to review every program in the Government, come back to me in 6 months with all kinds of other things that we can stop doing or that we can modify or that we can push back to people at the grass roots level. If we who believe in Government don't have the courage to change it, we cannot expect those who don't to help us in our efforts.

And this is just the beginning. Just 2 days ago I asked Secretary Shalala to draft a new child welfare initiative to combine family support and family preservation services, to do more to build on the work of Senator Rockefeller and Congressman Matsui and Congresswoman Schroeder and to do more for families at risk, especially those at risk of foster care placement, even as we try to strengthen our efforts to enforce child support enforcement for those who have been abandoned by one parent.

Now, there is a third argument against this effort. There are those who say, "Yes, Head Start's a good deal; WIC is a good deal; the immunization's a good deal. And yes, we ought to invest as opposed to consume. There is a distinction to be drawn in the way this money is spent, and investment is better, investment in our children, our fixture. But we still ought not to do it because we need even more deficit reduction."

And let me say, that is an argument you must treat with respect. We have gone from a $1 trillion deficit to a $4 trillion deficit in 12 years. We have imposed a crushing burden on the present and a bigger one on the future. And if you think about it, it's really an income transfer. Now that we're spending 15 cents of every dollar you pay the Government—most of you are middle class people, and we spend 15 cents of every dollar you pay the Government paying interest on the debt. Those bonds are largely held by Upper income people. So there are now a lot of liberals in the Congress who are rethinking their old positions on things like the mechanisms by which we move to balance the budget on the theory that we're spending all this money having an income transfer from middle class taxpayers, lower income taxpayers to people who hold the bonds because we didn't have the discipline to run our budgets better.

And if we don't do something about the deficit, we just keep on spending like we are, by the end of the decade your annual debt will be $653 billion a year. The interest service will be about 22 cents of your tax dollar. Twenty cents on the dollar of every dollar in America, public and private, will go to health care. So we have to change.

But my answer to those who say, "Well, let's just don't invest because this deficit is such a big problem," is: Number one, we got into this mess over 12 years, and we have more than 4 years to get out of it. Number two, we are reaping the benefits of the clear and disciplined and determined effort that the congressional leadership has now agreed to make with me to bring the deficit down. We have interest rates at very, very low rates. We have the stock market back up. People say, "Hey, this thing is going to work." All of you can now look at whether you should refinance your home or your car. Businesses should refinance their debt. If we get all this debt refinanced in the next year, that will add $80 to $100 billion back in our economy. We are reaping the benefits of a disciplined program to reduce the deficit today. But if we do not also at the same time recognize that for 12 years we have ignored our obligations to invest in our jobs, in our people, in our education, if we don't do that, we will pay for that neglect tomorrow, just like we're paying for yesterday's neglect today. We can do both things.

There's another argument you need to make—and I'm speaking for my wife now, as well as for me which is that if you just cut out all these programs that we believe in, if you just cut them plumb out, you'll still have an increase in the deficit again, starting in about 5 years, because of the explosion in health care costs. The real, ultimate answer to the deficit problem is to bring health care cost in line with inflation and provide a decent system of health care for all Americans.

And we can do that. So, with discipline, with a willingness to both cut and tax, with a willingness to reduce consumption expenditures and increase investment in our future, we can do the things that we have to do. But we can't walk away from any of our challenges and expect the results America needs.

If we walk away from the health care challenge, it doesn't matter what they do on all these other cuts. You'll be swallowed up in debt in 5 or 6 years again if we walk away from the health care challenge.

If we walk away from the challenge to raise some more revenues and cut the spending we must, we'll lose control of our economic destiny even if we spend more money on the programs you want. You'll be raising and educating healthier, more well-educated kids to a weaker economy.

But if we reduce the deficit and we forget about the fact that in the world we live in the only thing that really counts is people—every factory can be moved overseas. Three trillion dollars in money crosses national lines every day. Everything else is mobile except us. We're here. We don't want to move. [Laughter]

All we've got's each other now in America. That's what we've got. And if we ignore that, we don't think those little kids that live in the Mississippi Delta, in my home State, many of whom never see a dentist the whole time of their childhood, need a better shot in life because of us as well as them; if we don't believe that those kids that are sitting out there in the barrios in Los Angeles, in the black community, in the Hispanic community, in the Asian-American community, waiting for the resolution of the Rodney King trial only because it stands for everything else that ever happened to them, not because of the trial but because of what it stands for; if we don't think that we need to prove that a county like Los Angeles County with people from 150 different racial and ethnic groups can live together and learn together and grow together and if they play by the rules can have the right to earn a decent living, and we don't think that affects the rest of us, we haven't learned very much in the last 12 years.

And so I ask you to do this: I ask you to go to the Congress and ask them to support this program. And go with respect, because I promise you most of these people are trying to come to grips with the dilemmas of this time. And they have gotten one big message: that is that we made a horrible mistake to let the deficit get out of hand like we did in the last 12 years. And they deserve respect for getting that message. And they now have a President who will take the lead and fade some of the heat for the unpopularity of the decisions which have to be made. Go with respect for that. Say, "You had to do that, and we respect that."

But remind them that out in the country where you live, bringing down the deficit is important if it gives people jobs and raises people's incomes and if there are people out there who can seize the opportunities of the future. And what you represent is the future. You represent the needs of the people who will not be able to perform even with a sensible economic policy unless we do better in health care, in education, and in dealing with the needs of our poorest children. That is what you represent. None of this other stuff will amount to a hill of beans unless we put the American people first in all of these decisions. That is the message I plead with you to bring to the Congress.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

NOTE: The President spoke at 1:52 p.m. at the Washington Hilton. In his remarks, he referred to Marian Wright Edelman, president, Children's Defense Fund.

William J. Clinton, Remarks to the Children's Defense Fund Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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