The $64 question

Anna Quindlen

January 23, 1992|By Anna Quindlen

IT'S HARD TO imagine, looking over New Jersey's new welfare legislation, that the people who designed it sought information or help from those who will be most affected by it.

Have they talked to the people who have pumped themselves up with job training programs and then been blindsided by the reality of the job market? Have they talked to the women on welfare who fear that if they go to work they will lose their children's health care coverage? Have they talked to those who have stayed on public assistance rather than take minimum wage jobs because they had no place to put their kids while they worked?

No one hears those voices. The poor are a losing franchise; even the Democratic candidates for president, some sounding suspiciously like Rockefeller Republicans, seem to have thrown them over to concentrate on the forgotten middle class. The voices of compassion are reedy and thin, replaced by those reflecting, sometimes overtly, sometimes subtly, the stereotypes: that the welfare rolls are filled with lazy people who maximize their drag on the public weal by spitting out a child a year.

In New Jersey the result is legislation, called the Family Development Initiative Act, that may be well meaning but is about as reality-based as "Star Trek."

The most controversial part of the package refuses additional benefits to women who have a child while enrolled in the welfare program. This plays to the notion that welfare mothers are having one baby after another, which is simply untrue; a family on welfare in New Jersey is slightly smaller than the state average.

And it suggests that poor women have kids for the money. Right now, a woman on welfare in New Jersey receives an additional $64 a month if she has another child, or around $2 a day. I'd like to propose a month during which all members of the legislature attempt to meet their daily nutritional needs on $2.

The list of groups objecting to that provision includes the New Jersey Catholic Conference and the National Organization for Women, the American Civil Liberties Union and the state Right to Life group. Bad legislation makes strange bedfellows. Supporters of the bill say that middle-class people don't get government subsidies for additional kids, conveniently ignoring tax credits and deductions. They argue that it will teach women on welfare responsibility, a kind of legislative "tough love" program.

What it will really do is teach a 3-year-old what it feels like to have an empty stomach.

The Family Development Initiative Act, signed Tuesday by Gov. Jim Florio, allegedly a Democrat, requires that all welfare recipients attend school or job training or risk losing benefits. In theory this sounds fine, until you remember the state of the economy, even for the middle class. "The myth of a meritocracy has overshadowed the reality of available jobs," the New Jersey Council of Churches said in a statement opposing the legislation. Job training? Great. For what jobs?

The welfare system is a mess, and everyone knows it. When you meet a 16-year-old with a newborn who is the third generation of her matriarchal line to settle back into the quicksand of public assistance, you know that a system meant to get people back on their feet has instead cut many of them off at the knees.

And the solutions to welfare dependency are daunting: more emphasis on reducing teen-age pregnancy and the dropout rate, more education and training that targets the real needs of a changing job market, more innovative thinking about new ways to get people working, more initiatives for child care and health care.

Real welfare reform is going to require radical action, massive root changes, another war on poverty. And radical action requires big ideas, not $64 questions.

One good way to begin is to talk to the strong, smart women who have as much contempt for the welfare system as any middle-class person could, but who find, simply put, that it is the only way they can manage to put peanut butter in the cupboard for their kids.

Putting a lid on the peanut butter is an insulting and punitive way to show them that you want to improve their lives. They've probably got some better ideas if anyone's willing to listen.

Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.

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