Ending Welfare As We Know It

December 17, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — The papers are full of pleas these days. Portraits of the 100 most needy and stories of the 50 most desperate stare up from their pages. There are requests for food, for toys and for money to help families who don't have any.

The same newspapers are reporting a different sort of poverty story. They tell us that in Washington, policy-makers are spending the Christmas rush working against a deadline to change a program that doesn't elicit much compassion or, certainly, much taxpayer generosity: welfare.

A task force is trying to make good on a presidential refrain as familiar as ''Jingle Bells.'' It is trying to fulfill a promise ''to end welfare as we know it.''

What a difference some words can make. Words like poverty or welfare. What conflicting images are evoked by phrases like ''the neediest'' or ''AFDC mothers.''

One phrase elicits sympathy for Americans down on their luck. The other provokes frustration for people on the dole. One suggests the need for a helping hand, the other conjures up a bleak portrait of long-term dependents.

Welfare is not just the victim of national compassion fatigue. There is agreement now that AFDC is less a safety net than a trap, that welfare doesn't help people but, rather, sustains them in a state of helplessness.

As David Ellwood, co-chair of the task force, says succinctly, ''I am more convinced than ever that the system isn't working.''

Support for welfare has virtually disappeared. There are 14 million Americans receiving AFDC -- they include one out of every seven children. Yet only 6 percent of Americans believe that the program should remain as it is.

Our public views of welfare have been altered in large measure by the changing roles of women.

When the program was established in the Depression, we were living under a different social contract that featured women at home.

If a husband died or deserted his wife and children, we decided that the government should be a substitute provider.

Today, more and more mothers are in the workplace. It may be dangerous to suggest at suburban dinner parties that mothers at home are not ''working mothers.'' But it is rare indeed to hear anyone extolling the work ethic of a mother on welfare.

In another unheralded, mommy war, mothers who go to jobs at low wages do not want to pay for other mothers to stay at home.

So, the public consensus that now fuels the administration's attempt to ''end welfare as we know it'' is that welfare should be a program about jobs, not checks. That it should be time-limited not long-term.

The questions they are wrestling with now in Washington are tricky ones. How to be hardheaded without being hardhearted. How to create a program that will help people to help themselves.

Consider just the most heralded and perhaps the most popular feature of the administration's proposals: a two-year limit on cash benefits. But reformers know that 70 percent of welfare mothers already find a job within two years. The problem is that 70 percent of that 70 percent quit them in short order.

To make this time-limit a success, work has to pay more than welfare. The Earned Income Tax Credit will help by putting money in the hands of the working poor. But there must also be health care coverage and child care and, of course, jobs themselves.

Will we want ''to end welfare as we know it,'' even if it costs more? Or will it be more popular to do what Wisconsin threatens to do, to drop out of the federal welfare system five years from now without a plan, children be damned?

Fundamentally we want welfare reform that will discourage young girls from becoming the next generation of single mothers. But reformers also know that changing behavior with policy isn't easy or predictable.

One proposal on their list, for example, would encourage marriage. It would take away the incentive for young mothers to remain single, but only by allowing more poor married couples on the welfare rolls.

Another proposal would pay welfare only to teen-age mothers who stayed home with their mothers. It would take away a girl's incentive to have a child to get away from home, but it might also force a teen-age mother to stay in a troubled home.

Even the two-year limit, for that matter, might force a teen-ager to plan her future. But what about the young mother who has a second baby after her time is up?

I understand that new problems come with change. Frankly, I prefer the unsettled issues raised by welfare reform to the answers mired in AFDC.

But there is one question that nags at me this season: In our zeal for reform, how will we help young girls believe that there is something better to wait and work for than welfare? The answer to that is at the top of my Christmas wish list.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for the Boston Globe.

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