John J. DiIulio Jr.
is Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion and Civil Society, and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He served as first director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001.
Eight years ago this week, on July 22, 1999, George W. Bush delivered his first presidential campaign speech, titled "The Duty of Hope." Speaking in Indianapolis, he rejected as "destructive" the idea that "if only government would get out of the way, all our problems would be solved." Rather, "from North Central Philadelphia to South Central Los Angeles," government "must act in the common good, and that good is not common until it is shared by those in need." There are "some things the government should be doing, like Medicaid for poor children."
I helped draft the speech and served in 2001 as an adviser to Bush. He has made good on some compassion pledges. For instance, he has increased funding for public schools that serve low-income children. His $150 million program for mentoring 100,000 children of prisoners has made progress. In May, he pledged an additional $30 billion in U.S. aid to combat the global HIV/AIDS epidemic and save Africa's affected children.
On the other hand, poverty rates have risen in many cities. In 2005, Washington fiddled while New Orleans flooded, and the White House has vacillated in its support for the region's recovery and rebuilding process. Most urban religious nonprofit organizations that provide social services in low-income communities still get no public support whatsoever. Several recent administration positions on social policy contradict the compassion vision Bush articulated in 1999.
In May, Bush rejected a bipartisan House bill that increased funding for Head Start, a program that benefits millions of low-income preschoolers. His spokesmen claimed the bill was bad because it did not include a provision giving faith-based preschool programs an absolute right to discriminate on religious grounds in hiring.
That reason reverses a principle Bush proclaimed in his 1999 speech: "We will keep a commitment to pluralism, not discriminating for or against Methodists or Mormons or Muslims, or good people of no faith at all." As many studies show, most urban faith-based nonprofits that serve their own needy neighbors do not discriminate against beneficiaries, volunteers or staff on religious grounds. These inner-city churches and grassroots groups would love to expand Head Start in their communities.
Last week, Bush threatened to veto a bipartisan Senate plan that would add $35 billion over five years to the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). The decade-old program insures children in families that are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid but are too poor to afford private insurance. The extra $7 billion a year offered by the Senate would cover a few million more children. New money for the purpose would come from raising the federal excise tax on cigarettes.
Several former Bush advisers have urged the White House to accept some such SCHIP plan. So have many governors in both parties and Republican leaders in the Senate. In 2003, Bush supported a Medicare bill that increased government spending on prescription drugs for elderly middle-income citizens by hundreds of billions of dollars. But he has pledged only $1 billion a year more for low-income children's health insurance. His spokesmen say doing any more for the "government-subsidized program" would encourage families to drop private insurance.
But the health-insurance market has already priced out working-poor families by the millions. With a growing population of low-income children, $1 billion a year more would be insufficient even to maintain current per-capita child coverage levels. Some speculate that SCHIP is now hostage to negotiations over the president's broader plan to expand health coverage via tax cuts and credits. But his plan has no chance in this Congress; besides, treating health insurance for needy children as a political bargaining chip would be wrong.
Bush should return to Indianapolis. There, SCHIP covers children in families with incomes as high as three times the federal poverty line. The Republican governor who signed that program into law is Mitch Daniels, Bush's first budget office director. For compassion's sake, the president should compromise on SCHIP - say, $5 billion a year more - and work to leave no child uninsured.