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Welfare Reform: Are Orphanages A '90s Answer?

ONE Saturday early in December when I was in fourth grade, our Girl Scout troop arranged an unusual outing: a morning downtown as a holiday treat for girls from the local orphanage.

After picking up our shy companions at the massive red-brick Children's Home, we took them to breakfast at Bishop's Cafeteria. Then we walked to Woolworth's. The store's old wooden floor creaked beneath our feet as we zigzagged up one aisle and down another until each girl had chosen a small item as her Christmas gift from our troop.

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Afterward, back at the Children's Home, our new acquaintances showed us their spare dormitory-style rooms and the lockers where they stored their few possessions. We returned to our two-parent middle-class homes forever disabused of any naive schoolgirl notion that all families were like ours.

Every December I think about that orphanage, although its doors closed long ago. The memories, tinged with sadness, have particular relevance this year as a chilly new message echoes from Washington: ``End welfare. Build orphanages.''

The loudest call comes from US Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia, who has proposed using money saved from welfare cuts to build orphanages or group homes for children whose families become destitute because of the cutbacks. But his is not the only voice.

Myron Magnet, editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, has suggested a revamped welfare system featuring a ``network of community hostels'' for needy children and mothers. These hostels would offer structured, nurturing environments where mothers would be required to attend daily workshops on child rearing. Among other benefits, Mr. Magnet says, this system would discourage unmarried women from having babies they cannot support.

Elsewhere, Alphonso Jackson, president of the housing authority in Dallas, offers an even more dramatic solution: Take away the babies of teenage mothers under the age of 15 living in public housing and place them in community-run group homes away from that hostile environment.

During his many years at the housing authority, where nearly three-quarters of the 35,000 residents are women who are single heads of households, Mr. Jackson has watched the teenage birthrate skyrocket. Desperation and frustration obviously drive some of these proposals. Drugs, poverty, rising rates of teenage pregnancy and unwed parenthood - all have significantly changed the social landscape since our Girl Scout visit to the Children's Home in the calm and innocent 1950s.

But another part of the call for welfare reform seems to be driven by a growing coldness toward the poor. As politicians blame welfare for creating a ``culture of poverty,'' they speak harshly of aid programs that promote a ``counterculture value system.'' The demand of US Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas that the poor ``get out of the wagon and help push'' may be appropriate for some adults. It is not a reasonable expectation for their children, who account for 9 million of the nation's 14 million recipients of Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

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A legitimate case can be made that a good orphanage - clean, stable, well-run - is far better for a child than a revolving door of bad foster homes. Perhaps these calls for institutional care will prompt a useful national debate about other alternatives.

Yet the magnitude of the problem of children trying to rear children, or of children without parents at all, is too vast for any simple single solution. All the resources and ingenuity of both the public and private sector will have to be called upon, and an even more crucial partnership will be required - that of joining efficiency with compassion.

The failure of the American family, for whatever reason, is not a failure to be tolerated. A country that bases its self-respect on caring for its children cannot afford to let down those children who, through no fault of their own, are most in need of care.

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