THE ONCE commonplace idea that individuals are answerable for what they do, and that parents are responsible for the behavior of their children, is being codified as public policy in a number of states.
Some state and local governments are using what can fairly be described as coercive measures to encourage positive changes in personal behavior. In a dozen states, students who drop out of high school for reasons other than financial hardship face revocation of their driver's licenses. In Arkansas, a new law allows for the lifting of licenses of students who fail to maintain at least a C average. In Wisconsin, under a program known as Learnfare, teen-age mothers on welfare must return to school to study toward a diploma or face the loss of 45 percent of their monthly payment. In California, authorities can now hold parents responsible if their children engage in gang activities.
Some of these ideas may have more political appeal than practical effectiveness. Using financial rewards or punishments to keep welfare-dependent young people in high school doesn't assure they will develop job skills. Moreover, the personal responsibility agenda doesn't necessarily save money. Wisconsin's Learnfare has meant added costs for child care for the children of young mothers who have gone back to school.