HAMPTON, VIRGINIA. — Hampton, Virginia -- About a year ago I started working in an obstetric-gynecological clinic that treats many poor single women on welfare. Before that, I hadn't had the chance to observe up close the families we hear and talk so much about. I also had not realized there were so many white unwed mothers on welfare, the general media depiction being they're exclusively black and Hispanic. But in this southern city, in a section of town where poor whites outnumber blacks, the clinic's patients are about 70 percent white and 30 percent black.
But black or white, where there are generational histories of welfare, the problems and the patients' mentality are the same.
As nutritionist in the clinic, I help the women learn to feed themselves and their children proper diets. In considering their food supplies and eating behaviors, I also interact with the entire medical team and must look at the whole picture -- economic, intellectual, social and medical.
The most striking thing about the women, at least those who have been on welfare for several years or have a family history of welfare dating back a generation or two, is their apparent inability or unwillingness to think and act for themselves. Their association with welfare seems to have sapped all initiative, incentive and hope that life could be different. Bearing children and living on welfare are all they aspire to. Welfare, a lifetime of poverty with its concomitant problems, is the only lifestyle they know, all their mothers knew.
Often I hear the women described as ''lazy,'' ''deadbeats,'' ''out to get a free ride.'' The problem, in my opinion, is different. Given their life histories and present predicaments, they are incapable of thinking and behaving responsibly. They may be ''able-bodied,'' but not able-minded.
I see a woman -- there are many like her -- who is only 20 years old, about to give birth to her third or fourth child. A mother during all of adolescence, with no more emotional or intellectual maturity than the average teen-ager, whose upbringing often was by a teen-ager as well. How, I ask, can such a woman ever develop the maturity, fortitude, wisdom, the wherewithal to provide for and rear children?
She is young, poor, limited and most likely the child's father is young, poor and limited. So we have a host of young, poor, limited people reproducing themselves, and the sad part is that our welfare system encourages and aids this proliferation of poverty. By cutting off her benefits if she becomes employed or marries, welfare gives a clear signal that a poor woman can make out as well or better by having another child and staying on welfare.
Medicaid pays for prenatal care, even for transportation to and from the clinic.
It will also pay for family-planning counseling and birth control such as oral contraceptives and tubal ligation (tying of the fallopian tubes). But note this: Medicaid will also pay to have the tubal procedure reversed if the woman decides she'd like to have more children later. Medicaid in most states will not pay for a woman to have an abortion.
To be sure, for some unwed mothers, welfare is a temporary solution to an unfortunate circumstance. These women are embarrassed to be receiving public assistance.
And some teen-agers show a glint of light, a desire to reach for something more. Many stay in high school while their mothers or grandmothers care for the children.
The teen-agers tell me things like, ''I want to be a secretary,'' ''I want to join the Army,'' ''I want to be a cosmetologist.'' Rarely, however, do they express any desire or hope of going to college, as if it were totally out of their grasp.
I fear that as these young mothers get more deeply involved with welfare, even that flicker of light will go out, and the welfare lifestyle will become their life's end.
The boy children of many of these young mothers, born without much of a chance at life, are lost by puberty. They crowd our courts and prisons, become embittered, angry young men. Many never live to be old men, never become productive adults and real fathers to their children.
As I work with these young women day after day, I grieve. I am pained and distressed to see 13-year-olds having children. I see women without a place to call home, insufficient food, in poor health, with no tangible support -- having children. I see children being placed in foster care, yet the mother gets pregnant again and again. I see women with extreme mental limitations having children. I see women who are substance abusers give birth to children who are crippled for life.
That we and our government support this human tragedy is indeed a blight on our society.