AS THE main author of the Philadelphia Inquirer's notorious editorial "Poverty and Norplant," I've been been deluged with mail from around the country. The editorial, which suggested giving welfare mothers incentives to use the new long-term contraceptive Norplant, was bound to have supporters as well as detractors, and frankly I was more worried about who my fans would turn out to be.
But so far I haven't been offered honorary membership in the Klan. To the contrary I've heard mostly from folks whose instincts are basically liberal: They're deeply concerned about the growth of the urban underclass, don't think policymakers are offering credible answers and don't even think we're talking honestly about the problem.
"Neither my wife nor I are Nazis, believe in state-sponsored eugenics, etc., but we recognize the element of truth in what you apparently wrote," a typical letter from Chicago began.
One of the more thoughtful letters was from Theodore Hershberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who teaches a course on the "origins and prospects of the black underclass." And it was his letter -- and an article that came across my desk at the same time -- that inspired me to crawl out from under my rock and wade back into the social-policy thicket.
"It is certainly not a case of much ado about nothing," Hershberg wrote about the controversy over the Norplant editorial, which talked specifically about the high proportion of black children being born to single mothers on welfare. "You've hit the nerve ending at its most exposed point."
He went on, "Each fall I struggle with the question of how you talk about individual responsibility for one's fate without blaming the victim. What is the appropriate balance between personal behavior and a ghetto environment that limits personal options? . . . What behaviors should be termed destructive, and how can blacks and whites reach a consensus on condemning those? If this painful episode could lead us to a more candid dialogue on these questions, it would be worthwhile."
Arriving in the same batch of mail with Hershberg's letter was a paper by Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. It was adapted from a speech Finn gave last spring at a conference entitled "The New War on Poverty: Advancing Forward This Time."
Finn had been asked to offer ways for society to respond to the problem of crumbling families and "endangered children." He admitted he didn't have a sure-fire program, but thought it was important for starters that people in positions of influence "speak what everyone knows to be the truth about families and parenting, politically ticklish though it has become. With rare exceptions -- the truth, remember? -- two-parent families are good for children, one-parent families are bad, zero-parent families are horrible. This is not something to be ashamed of. It is the product of the species' experience in billions of instances spanning the millennia."
He went on, "We know that a well-functioning society must condemn behavior that results in people having children who are not prepared to be good parents. I find it astonishing that, in the face of that knowledge, today we seem to attach more opprobrium to dropping out of school, experimenting on a cat or uttering nasty remarks on campus than we do to giving birth to what, not so many years ago, were called 'illegitimate' children.
"I am making a point about morality, yes, but the larger point is about honesty: Children fare better in some circumstances than in others, and no decent society will remain silent when it comes to pointing out which circumstances are which."
It's worth noting that Finn doesn't mention race. The principles he's invoking are universal. And while a far higher percentage of black than white children are born out of wedlock, the rates for both races have soared during the past quarter-century, as has the middle-class divorce rate.
Finn doesn't offer much in the way of alternatives. He prefers adoption and even orphanages to foster care; he thinks bad parents should be held more accountable for their behavior; he thinks caring volunteers can make more of an impact on children's lives than government programs.
His main message is that it's not merely enough to acknowledge the seminal importance of healthy families: "We need to teach it, preach it, to persuade people of it. It's a whole lot more important to the society's future than stopping smoking or lowering cholesterol levels or recycling aluminum cans."
Donald Kimelman is deputy editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial page.