THE PUBLIC'S current fixation on how to help America's poor since the Los Angeles riots is long overdue.
Today's welfare policy is hopelessly misguided because it focuses almost exclusively on raising the living standards of the poor -- defined for a family of four in 1991 as having an income of $12,675 -- while ignoring the breakdown in values that lead to the formation of healthy families, stable individuals and self-sufficiency.
There has been no shortage of federal spending on welfare: Total federal, state, and local welfare spending now tops $220 billion -- about $6,500 for every poor person in America. Not counting entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, government welfare includes cash, food, housing, medical assistance and other benefits through 75 separate welfare programs.
Calls for even higher levels of spending continue -- despite growing evidence that long-term welfare actually harms the poor. Indeed, the War on Poverty may have raised the material standard of living of some Americans, but at great cost: creating whole communities where traditional two-parent families are absent, work is rare or non-existent and generations grow up dependent on government assistance.
While the breakdown of families has affected both whites and blacks, the disintegration of black family life has been even more devastating. For example, before World War II, intact black families were the rule; broken or single-parent families were the exception.
Beginning in the late 1960s, however, the relatively slow growth in black illegitimate births skyrocketed -- reaching 49 percent in 1975 and 65 percent in 1989. If trends continue, that rate will reach 75 percent in 10 years. Worse, there is absolutely no incentive within the welfare system for these fathers to take responsibility for their actions. The government steps in to pay the bills.
And what about the decline in the work ethic among the poor? In the mid-1950s, nearly one-third of poor households were headed by a fully employed adult. Today, with greater welfare benefits available, only 16.4 percent of poor families are headed by an adult working full-time. Of the more than 4 million families now receiving assistance through Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), more than half will remain dependent for over 10 years, many for 15 years or longer.
The economic effect of staying on welfare is cruelly simple: If a poor mother and father do not marry, their joint income is the value of the mother's welfare benefits plus the father's earnings. If they do marry, their joint income equals the father's earnings alone. If you were in their spot, what would you do?
The plain fact is that welfare's twisted system of incentives is converting the low-income working husband from a breadwinner into a financial handicap; it is transforming marriage from an institution designed to protect and nurture children into one that financially penalizes nearly all low-income parents who enter into it.
Thus, real welfare reform must overturn the destructive dynamics of the system. Any successful reform effort must include plans to:
* Reduce welfare benefits to non-working single mothers. This is particularly important in states where the combined value of welfare benefits for the average AFDC family greatly exceeds the federal poverty income thresholds.
* Require able-bodied welfare recipients to work or perform community service in exchange for benefits.
* Offer significant tax relief to low-income working families. This should include not only cuts on income tax, but also tax credits and vouchers for medical insurance to working families that lack medical coverage.
Comprehensive reform must combine compassion with toughness. Even Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Clinton, stern defender of Great Society programs, admits that fundamental changes are needed: "If we help train you and you still refuse to work, then no more welfare." Until Washington responds with programs that meet the real needs of the poor, the welfare state will continue to make them its victims, not its beneficiaries.
Robert Rector is welfare and family issues analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.