Clinton and welfare: There's no poverty of the imagination

December 06, 1993|By MIKE LITTWIN

Hyperactive Bill Clinton is back at it again, taking on another seemingly intractable problem. This time it's welfare reform. The man never stops.

Early reports suggest the usual Clinton program: long on ideas, short on details and shorter still on funding.

But at least it sets an agenda that is moderate and relatively thoughtful. And it serves as a counterpoint to the usual wackiness from the intellectual right, which has its own plan for welfare.

It's two words long: End it.

Conservatives have made welfare an issue for what seems like forever, dating back long before Ronald Reagan's rantings about Cadillac-driving welfare queens.

You don't hear much about Cadillacs anymore. No, we're happy if anyone buys an American car. Now the attacks on welfare are better grounded, with the talk of a "permanent underclass" or a "cycle of poverty."

Welfare, these days, means Aid to Families With Dependent Children. We've seen the face of that welfare. It's a poor face, usually that of an unmarried black woman from the inner city whose kids play in and among the drugs and carnage of crime-ridden neighborhoods.

The mainstream liberal solution is to accelerate and refine the old one. Pour ever-growing amounts of money into city schools, into city infrastructure, into job creation, into job training, into preschools, into prenatal clinics, into a whole legion of programs.

You've heard the pitch: Spend money on kids now to save money on prisons later.

Of course there's one big problem with that line: It's the money part. Take a poll of your neighborhood. Take a poll in your household. You don't see a big groundswell to spend more money on social programs.

Cutting off welfare saves money, of course. If it causes a little pain, well, somebody always gets hurt, right?

Social scientist Charles Murray is a leader in this movement. He makes the argument, most recently in a Wall Street Journal article, that out-of-wedlock births are our greatest problem. Illegitimacy, he says, is at the root of crime and poverty.

Pretty routine stuff, although I'd argue it's poverty that causes illegitimacy. But Murray offers a dramatic twist: He warns that without strong measures there will soon be a white underclass to rival the black one. He makes it a white problem.

Census Bureau statistics show that 22 percent of white births are now out of wedlock and that more whites than blacks are already on the welfare rolls.

Murray breaks those numbers down. Murphy Brown isn't having these babies. In the white population, 82 percent of the women giving birth out of wedlock did not attend college. And 44 percent live below the poverty line.

In the '60s, Murray says, the rate of illegitimate births in the black community was around 25 percent. Now, it's 68 percent. He says that with the current programs we can expect a similar rise in the white community, with similar problems to follow.

And so, cut off the money. He doesn't say women have babies for the welfare check. But he does say many would stop having babies without one.

If unwed mothers were forced to replace that money within their own community, that community might be a little less complacent about the problem.

What happens to kids whose mothers or fathers can't cut it in the real world? Take them away. Murray suggests upscale orphanages that he says bleeding hearts can think of as 24-hour preschools.

It's neat. It's clean. But isn't there a less painful way?

Clinton, the old workfare booster, thinks so. He has proposed a social contract whereby the government would provide training and child care for two years, after which the welfare recipient must take a job. Everyone has to work.

There are a few problems. Clinton says the program won't cost additional money. No one believes that. He also apparently does not yet have an answer for what happens to those who can't find jobs after two years in a still-weak economy.

But there are some good ideas. One is to provide this child care for the working poor to help them move into the middle class. Another is a massive campaign to combat teen pregnancy. Also, training for unwed fathers, who always get off much too easy.

Everyone agrees on a few principles. Teenagers shouldn't have babies. Children in welfare families must see that education can turn into jobs and that jobs can mean a better life.

And one more thing: The old way isn't working.

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