Ted Kennedy has supported the RFK and Moynihan proposals throughout his career, and has done far more to reform the system than have welfare-bashing Republicans.
The Republicans have held the presidency for 20 out of the past 26 years, yet the only GOP-led attempt to reform welfare came in the early 1970s, when Moynihan, now a Democratic senator from New York, served as domestic-policy adviser in the Nixon administration.
The sole major reform of welfare that passed in these decades was the Family Support Act of 1988 – a law sponsored by Moynihan and Kennedy. "That gave the states the option of putting people into workfare," notes Paul Offner, a legislative aide to Moynihan who has frequently written on welfare reform in the New Republic and the Washington Post.
"It's not unfair to say that Bush did little or nothing," Offner adds. "There was not a serious welfare reform proposal of any kind. President Bush waited until he was getting ready to run for re-election in '92, then he sent up a little bill that had four or five little tinkering proposals. Reagan's position was, basically, that we hand this all back to the states and give them more flexibility. That was not what ended up passing."
The real impetus for the 1988 reform, according to Offner, came from the states: "Frankly, Bill Clinton was the lead governor. He said we want to change the emphasis of welfare from sending out checks and determining eligibility and replace it with training and work."
As president, Clinton has introduced welfare-reform legislation that would mandate that able-bodied welfare recipients stop receiving benefits after two years unless they are working. But the Moynihan-Kennedy law already allows any state that wishes to start such a program to do so.
Kennedy, the record shows, had always been for the work requirement. In 1978, he introduced a welfare-reform bill that would have pushed recipients off welfare and into work.
Kennedy has seen his quest for healthcare as an essential prerequisite to welfare reform, since welfare recipients receive health insurance through Medicaid. As Offner notes, "After you get a job and leave the welfare rolls, you're entitled under current law to one year of health care. After that, if you haven't obtained health insurance you drop off completely. There are a number of studies which show that 10 or 20 percent of those on welfare stay on the rolls only because they don't want to lose health insurance."
Clinton and Kennedy
The Clinton presidency has brought new life to Ted Kennedy and his legislative goals. Health-care reform has been Kennedy's priority for almost three decades. A quarter-century ago, Kennedy wrote an introduction to Richard Harris's book A Sacred Trust: The Story of Organized Medicine's Multi-Million Dollar Fight Against Public Health Legislation, in which he acknowledged that it could "take a generation" to enact health-care reform.
In 1972, Kennedy published his own book on the subject, In Critical Condition: The Crisis In America's Health Care (Simon & Schulster). "I have personally tasted the tragedy of illness and injuries," Kennedy wrote, referring to his and his brother Jack's back injuries, and to his father's debilitating stroke.