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The Welfare Discussion We Really Need

Despite promises to address families' needs, Democrats found it easier to agree with welfare myths and the Republicans' call for `family values'

DEMOCRATS have had a field day with Republican proposals to cut unwed mothers from public assistance and send their children to orphanages. In 1992, Republicans attacked the Democratic platform statement that ``people,'' not governments, raise children, suggesting that the choice of words revealed a conscious attempt to devalue parents. How satisfying for Democrats to now be able to charge that Republicans want institutions, not parents, to raise children.

It's a nice retort, but too easy. And that about sums up the whole debate over teenage mothers, welfare reform, and family values. Charges and countercharges about welfare queens versus Simon Legrees obscure a point neither political party wants to grapple with: Our modern welfare system emerged as a substitute for the Full Employment Act proposed by the United Auto Workers in the 1940s.

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The consequences of America's refusal to commit to investing in jobs for all were hidden for years by rising wages and job security for union-protected workers, government-subsidized educational expansion for the middle class, and a policy of coercion and exclusion directed at unprotected workers.

But the postwar system is now in shambles. Real wages are falling for all but the richest 20 percent of Americans. Job security is disappearing. Most families need two incomes to get by. And more and more people can't form or sustain families under the friction of a fast-paced consumer culture rubbing against economic deprivation and community decay.

Focus on AFDC

The fact that debates over how to address these real issues focus on Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC), a program that absorbs 1 percent of the federal budget, typifies the manipulative nature of political discourse.

Certainly, the orphanage proposal is chilling in its assumption that impoverished young mothers are automatically bad parents. It is also reckless in its claim that private charities can save taxpayers the expense of running such institutions. But the Democratic response is opportunistic. President Clinton's announcement that ``there is no substitute'' for parents cedes too much to the sentimentalization of biological ties that often inhibits courts from terminating parental rights in cases of abuse or severe neglect.

Similarly, Democrats who delight in pointing out that orphanages would be ``even'' more expensive than AFDC payments reinforce the idea that the government's aim should be to cut immediate costs rather than invest effectively in the productivity of future generations.

This debate didn't have to be so shallow. In 1992, Republicans alienated millions of Americans with their slurs against nontraditional families. Clinton won because he promised to address people's urgent concerns about the decay of cities, the loss of stable jobs, the rise in work hours for most families, and the declining educational prospects for youth.

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Yet once in office, the Democrats tallied up the political and economic costs of significant social restructuring and decided they'd been overly bold. If it wasn't the economy, but single mothers all along, there was less need for risky fights over the redistribution of resources, investments, and government programs. Soon the main Clinton administration think tank was pushing what was Vice President Dan Quayle's simple-minded but deliciously inexpensive formula to solve America's urban crisis: Marriage is ``the best antipoverty program for children.''

Within months of the inauguration, liberal columnists were proclaiming a new ``bipartisan consensus'' that ``Dan Quayle was right.'' Leading Democrats increasingly endorsed the notion that unwed motherhood was the driving force behind crime, drugs, poverty, school failure, government fiscal crisis, and middle-class economic setbacks.

Nothing brings politicians together more quickly than an easy target, and what target could be easier than single teenage mothers on welfare? For two years, politicians have conjured up ever more lurid images of unwed welfare moms having more and more children, bankrupting hardworking taxpayers, and spending most of their monthly checks on the cocaine trade that leads their fatherless boys to rob, kidnap, and murder decent citizens.

Democrats should not have been surprised that the more these images dominated public discussion, the better the Republicans did in the polls. Their self-righteous claims to be more compassionate than Newt Gingrich have done nothing to challenge right-wing distortions of the facts or to counter the ridiculous notion that marriage is a substitute for antipoverty programs, quality child care, and parent-friendly work policies.

The chicken and egg

Yes, single-parent families are more likely to be poor, but they are not the only victims of our changing economy. There is also the chicken and egg question here. Poor couples are twice as likely to divorce as more affluent ones. Jobless individuals are three to four times less likely to marry. And teens who live in areas of high unemployment and inferior school systems are six to seven times more likely to become unwed parents than more fortunate teens. Dozens of research studies show that the most effective deterrent to early childbearing is access to, among other things, good schools and steady jobs.

Even if we reunited every child in the United States with both biological parents, two-thirds of the children who are poor today would still be poor, according to US Census figures. Persistent poverty during the first five years of life leaves children with an IQ deficit of more than nine points, regardless of family structure. Children who have been exposed to lead are seven times less likely to graduate from high school and six times more likely to have a reading disability than other children.

A recent survey in New York City explodes the bipartisan mythology about unwed motherhood and spiraling welfare costs: Only one in four poor households in the country's largest city is headed by a single parent, while welfare spending, adjusted for inflation, has declined by 30 percent since 1970. Medicaid, which goes primarily to providers of medical care for the aged and disabled, accounts for the majority of the city's welfare expenditures.

As for the reverse notion that welfare causes unwed motherhood, this too is mostly myth. Out-of-wedlock childbearing is lowest in the states with the highest welfare benefits. And sociologist Mark Rank reports that the average mother on welfare has 1.9 children, fewer than her counterpart who is not on welfare.

But politicians prefer to battle on the turf of old prejudices and falsehoods than to move onto higher ground. It's easier to debate what to do about slum mothers or deadbeat dads than to figure out what to do about slumlords or deadbeat corporations. For the public, though, the result can only be more frustration, more attempts to throw the rascals out only to find the next batch is just as useless, and more temptation to seek scapegoats. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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