Child Welfare League


Office of the Press Secretary

Internal Transcript
March 1, 1995

Remarks By The First Lady
To The Child Welfare League

MRS. CLINTON: -- Thank you, thank you all. Thank you so much, David and John and all of you gathered here this evening on behalf ofthe work that we are doing and will continue to do on behalf of children. I am deeply honored to receive this award named for Natalie Heineman. Her work with children and with the League inspires all of us to do more and to reach further.

I'm also pleased that my friend, Elizabeth Glaser, received this award last year. And as a tribute to her, I hope that as we go about our work on behalf of children , we remember the sacrifice and commitment she displayed, and draw strength from what she did on behalf of -- (applause.)

As some of you may know, the President is speaking tonight to a gathering at the Nixon Center on the dangers of isolationism and nuclear proliferation -- two issues critical to the future of our children and children everywhere. And although he is not able to join us tonight in celebration of the Child Welfare League, he wanted you to know that children are on his mind and they will stay on his mind in the days and months ahead. (Applause.)

For 75 years you and this League have given all kinds of leadership to our nation, and our nation has relied on you for wisdom and moral leadership. We have to continue to call on your leadership, because we have to continue to devise ways to help protect our most vulnerable children. Your leadership is so crucial because today the youngest among us face new and greater burdens than ever before.

When David Lederman* testified in the House last month on welfare reform, he talked about our obligation as a nation to keep all children from harm. That single phrase, "to keep all children from harm," summed up the moral imperative before us now. For decades, Americans have stood out for their compassion for children. We have prided ourselves on the high aspirations and expectations we have held for children. But today, we find ourselves at a rare moment in history when we must decide as a nation how much children really matter to us.

American children are in crisis. Twenty-three percent of our children live in poverty, and millions go without essential services every day. Too many children are bearing children of their own. Drugs, violence and abuse continue to claim the futures and even the lives of our young people before they reach adulthood.

Surely, as we search for solutions to such complex human problems, we need a full and honest debate. Yet that discussion is not taking place today. There is no real exchange of ideas. There is no weighing of evidence. There is simply a full-scale assault on nearly every program that helps the neediest, most vulnerable and disadvantaged among us.

The President has described recent actions in Congress as a war on the children of America. The war is taking many forms: cuts in current funding, elimination of programs, withdrawal of guarantees and block grants in the name of state flexibility. If the wrong side wins in this war on children, fallout from this war will reach far beyond the $40 billion in cuts in children's programs over the next five years. Far beyond Barney and Big Bird and school lunches; far beyond summer jobs and aid for children with disabilities. What will be lost is our notion of who we are as a people and what we stand for as a society. (Applause.)

Let's not be fooled by rhetoric about block grants and greater flexibility and autonomy for the states. And let's remember that cutting programs that help children is not going to significantly reduce the deficit. The only people who will benefit from being the evisceration of children's programs are families earning more than $200,000 a year who will be eligible for a capital gains tax cut. In 57 short days, we have learned that the Contract with America is indeed a financial arrangement, one that assigns far more importance to the interest of the very wealthy and the very powerful, than to the interests of the poor, the needy and the weak. We do not need that sort of contract in America. (Applause.)

We need instead, a covenant, a sacred trust between government and the American people, and among the American people themselves that reflects our long-held belief that every citizen, rich or poor, urban or rural, young or old, has the right and responsibility to rise as far as their God-given talents and determination can take them, and to give something back to their society in return. That is the underlying principle of the President's New Covenant, which, as he said in his State of the Union address, is actually grounded in some very old ideas. Those old ideas have guided us for more than a century in our efforts to protect children from harm.

Yet today, the foundation which we have built to promote work over welfare and strengthen families is in jeopardy. Federal guarantees of child care assistance for low-income families and those coming off welfare, grants for foster care and adoption assistance, Medicaid coverage, summer jobs for young people, heating fuel for the disadvantaged and aid for poor children with disabilities are just a few of the programs at risk.

As a friend of mine said recently, cutting $7 billion out of child nutrition programs and $4 billion out foster care and adoption programs is not so much a revolution as -- quote -- "a massacre of the innocence."

If Congress weakens these programs, it will represent a total reversal of an historic commitment our nation has made to children.

Few Americans realize that the first federal effort at child care came in 1863 when the government sponsored a nursery for mothers working in Civil War hospitals. Few realize that food vouchers, an early version of food stamps, were given to freed slaves after the Civil War. Few realize that the first federal immunization program was launched at the beginning of this century, or that Congress established a Children's Bureau in 1909 to safeguard the well being of children. Aid for Families With Dependent Children, called welfare, began in 1935 as a way to enable mothers, many of them widows, to stay home with their children.

Children were protected by labor laws beginning in the 1930s. Congress appropriated funds for emergency maternal and infant care in 1943. The National School Lunch Act was passed in 1946 after it became evident that many inductees into our Armed Forces in World War II suffered from poor nutrition as children.

Throughout much of our history, children's programs have received broad bipartisan support because there is such compelling evidence that early intervention saves money and lives, and reaffirms the values of opportunity and responsibility that built America.

Senator Robert Taft, a conservative Republican leader in his era, said in 1948 that the American economy was rich enough --and I quote -- "to prevent extreme hardship and maintain a minimum standard floor under subsistence, education, medical care and housing to give to all a minimum standard of decent living, and to all children a fair opportunity to get a start in life."

Before now we would never have dreamed of counting cuts in programs for children on a 100-day scorecard. Before now, we came together as Americans to safeguard the rights of disabled, abused and hungry children through WIC, Head Start, the Child Abuse Prevention Act of 1974, the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, and the Children's Welfare and Adoption Assistance Act of 1980, passed under both Republican and Democratic presidents. Each of these did more than throw money at a problem. Each of these represented a moral commitment to children that improved our country, gave voices to the voiceless, strengthened us and protected children from harm.

Yet, today, poor children and families are viewed less as objects of concern than as culprits for everything that is wrong in society. Drugs, violence, illegitimacy and abuse are viewed as afflictions only of the poor and, in turn, it is poor children and families who are singled out for punishment.

My minister gave a sermon recently in which he related the story in Leviticus about the ancient Israelites who annually placed all of their miseries and sins on the head of a goat and then sent the goat off into the wilderness. When the goat reached the wilderness, the tribe was cleansed of all problems, all evils, all sins. This is an apt parable for what is happening in America today. In today's society, the goat is poor children and their parents. And somehow we think we can rid ourselves of all our social problems by scapegoating children and exiling them to a wilderness of greater poverty and hopelessness.

Some in Washington and around the country justify these extreme budget cuts by saying, we have all these children's programs in place, but things are only getting worse. Obviously, the programs don't make a difference. Well, nobody ever conceived of government programs as a panacea. We all know that services alone will not lift a child out of poverty. A school lunch program can help a child's physical and intellectual development, but it can't provide shelter. A nutrition program for pregnant women can increase the likelihood of a healthy baby, but it can't pay the rent.

To overcome poverty, children and families need the basic necessities in life. They also need to be buffered by a strong economy. As the National Council of Bishops stated in a pastoral letter in 1991 entitled "Putting Families First," many families are poor because of economic forces beyond their control: recession, industrial restructuring, erosion of real wages, unemployment and discrimination in hiring and promotion.

That's why, as we search for a solution to today's real social problems, we must avoid an unbalanced approach that both robs children of services and fails to address the broad economic and social forces that contribute to poverty in the first place. Meaningful deficit reduction, the creation of nearly six million new jobs, investments in the skills and training of our people -- these are structural changes that, as the President has fought for and articulated, will help lift children and families out of poverty over the long run.

To address our problems, parents and families must take responsibility, too. They must provide the love and nurturing and discipline their children need. They must be willing to make the sacrifices that are necessary to create conditions within the family that enable children to flourish. And, in some cases, young men and women must postpone having children until they have the means to provide the love, the support, and the responsible care. And in other cases, parents with children should think harder and longer about divorce and, instead, put their children's needs and interests first. And child support, as the President made clear at the beginning of this week, has to be part of what it means to be a decent, responsible parent.

In that same pastoral letter I just mentioned, the bishops also wrote that the most important work on behalf of our children must be done in our homes and our neighborhoods and our community organizations. No government can love a child, and no policy can substitute for a family's care. But at the same time, government can either support or undermine families as they cope with the moral, social and economic stresses of caring for children.

Both national policies and personal values must play a role. It is time to end the false debate that pits national policies against personal values. We need to support both if we expect to have healthy -- children. (Applause.) We know that what happens to poor children and their families also has ripple effects throughout the rest of society. We also know that many of the programs under attack are not aimed just at poor families, because the safety net that was kept in place even during the 1980s did provide services for many families who, themselves, were on the brink of falling into poverty.

A few weeks ago I visited a federally-supported child care center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. There was not a single parent I met who was not working, going to college, taking courses to try to get a GED, or actively involved in job training. Having access to that kind of child care that they could count on enabled them to go forward to build a stronger family.

In the weeks and months ahead, as Congress works on social issues, the test of every policy and every budget decision should be whether it helps children and strengthens families. I want you to know that the White House and the Clinton administration will work with you to ensure that our children are kept from further harm.

In the last 10 days, we have seen the response of the American people as the specifics of budget proposals have been unveiled. People know better. They often can put a face on all of the abstract rhetoric about budgets and programs. They can see the children that I saw earlier today in Arlington, Virginia, at a school where three-fifths of the children in an affluent community are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. They can see the little girl, Ellen, who sat across from me, or Zachary, who came up to ask about Socks, the cat. They know that when it finally becomes a question as to whether we will support abstract ideology or concrete personal lives in the faces and futures of our children, that they will want our children protected.

And that is why we can, and we will, with your help, continue to protect the children of America from harm. It will not be an easy struggle, because, as I said earlier, there are powerful forces that refuse to recognize the costs that will be borne by our entire society in return for privileges for a few if we eradicate the progress that we have made so far. But I'm confident that America will once again rise to this challenge, and that our children will be given the future they deserve.

Thank you all very much.

March-April 1995

Pentagon Celebration of Women's History Month

Child Welfare League

Lahore University of Management Sciences, Pakistan

Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, New Delhi

U.N. World Summit on Social Development, Copenhagen

International Women's Day, Copenhagen, Denmark

Mother of the Year Awards

National Design Awards

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