Welfare as a Career Opportunity

ELLEN GOODMAN

April 17, 1992|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- The photograph in the Maine newspaper showed a young, attractive mother and her two small children.

''I'm a natural at motherhood,'' the woman had happily told the reporter. ''It's my job.''

Nothing about these words or this job description would have stuck in my mind over the months since I first read them except for one decidedly non-traditional fact of her life.

The 20-year-old and her children were living on welfare.

The ''employers'' for her AFDC ''job'' are taxpayers. The people who contributed to her paycheck included other ''natural'' mothers who went to work every day when they too might have preferred staying home with their toddlers. They also included working couples trying to figure out if they could afford what she already had: one child, or two.

This mother was not the Cadillac-driving welfare queen who starred in the 1980s welfare-basher scenario. No such stereotypes need apply.

But today's portrait of a never-married teen-age mother with a sense of entitlement -- to children and to welfare -- has become the latest symbol of dismay and despair that is adding to the ranks of welfare skeptics.

Indeed this image is now the focal point of a series of welfare proposals from California to New Jersey that would cap benefits for any additional children.

It is a centerpiece of the Wisconsin experiment that just got the green light from the federal government and a rousing send-off from the president. Among other things, this plan would halve the benefits for a second child and eliminate them for a third.

Such proposals strike at the heart of our doubts about welfare itself. They spotlight our conflicts about values and dollars.

On the one hand, Americans instinctively believe that the welfare poor should play by the same rules as the rest of us. A family that works does not get a raise for having a child. Why then should a family that doesn't work? Working Americans do some cost-accounting as part of their family planning. Why not those on AFDC?

On the other hand, we are properly queasy about punishing children for the behavior of their parents. Once a child is born, is it right to push that child further into poverty by forcing a family of three to live on the meager welfare income of two? What happens if we hurt some children as we try to change other mothers' behavior?

I find myself frankly uncomfortable with the young Maine mother's belief in her right to be supported on welfare. I find myself uncomfortable as well with the way that the focus of the welfare debate has shifted onto this subject.

Contrary to social myths, welfare mothers do not have more children than other mothers. They average 1.9 children. Contrary to economic myths, it's very hard to change human behavior by manipulating welfare dollars.

If we want to encourage responsibility, the starting point is with -- those policies that enforce education and job training in return DTC for AFDC payments. If we want to encourage middle-class values, a more profitable place to begin is with fathers and missing child-support payments.

If we want to get women off welfare, we need to ensure that work will pay. And before we punish women for having children we must be willing to pay for birth control and its back-up, abortion.

And if we do all this, I think it's also fair to tell AFDC mothers ''no.'' No, we won't pay more for more children born onto the welfare rolls.

No-saying, for all of its limits, has one overriding benefit. It sends a message about values.

As Isabel Sawhill of the Urban Institute puts it, ''It says that society as a whole doesn't believe there is a right to have children, regardless of someone's income or ability to support them.'' It says that welfare was designed to be temporary, for the emergencies and accidents of life.

That message is crucial if we are to shore up the weakest link in any poverty program: public support. What is missing today is the belief in the sense of shared values. Without that sense, public support has turned off in frustration and public concern has eroded into parsimony. More than one caring citizen ends up wondering where a 20-year-old mother of two got the idea that AFDC was a career opportunity.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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