Republicans should propose in this session of Congress legislation that would end welfare for anyone having a child out of wedlock. Our preference is to end, one year after the legislation is passed, all forms of economic support for single mothers who have new children.
These would include an end to aid to families with dependent children, an end to subsidized housing, an end to food stamps, an end to all forms of assistance for those single mothers currently on welfare, an end to visitation rights for illegitimate fathers and a change in the tax codes to make them more favorable to marriage and children.
The specifics are less important than the end game; somewhere soon we want welfare to end, and when it does we can judge these policies, and their broad social consequences, against reality.
These proposed policy changes are based on an important moral principle: Having children out of wedlock is wrong -- not simply economically unwise for the individuals involved or a financial burden on society, but morally wrong.
Even Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, she of impeccable liberal credentials, recently said in an interview: "I don't like to put this in moral terms, but I do believe that having children out of wedlock is just wrong."
By the end of the decade, according to the most reliable projections, 40 percent of all American births and 80 percent of minority births will be illegitimate. These numbers have frightening social implications.
Welfare may not cause illegitimacy, but it does make it economically practical. There is hardly any question illegitimacy rates would fall -- probably dramatically -- if aid-to-dependent-children payments were stopped. Welfare is illegitimacy's economic life support system.
Social scientist Charles Murray, in a recent Wall Street Journal article, went beyond the unwed-mother issue. He called for ending the current welfare system outright. His views had an explosive effect and set off a chain reaction that in a dozen weeks has transformed the welfare debate. We are now at one of those rare political moments when a fundamental, even radical, and positive change in public policy is possible.
That reform of this magnitude is possible can be explained largely by the widespread acceptance of overwhelming empirical evidence: The current welfare system is a complete failure. Over the last three decades, we have spent enormous sums of money on welfare programs, and what do we have to show for it? An underclass that is much larger, more violent and more poorly educated and consisting of many more single-parent families.
Reaction to Mr. Murray's article was overwhelmingly favorable, including positive reaction from some unlikely places. Here is what President Clinton said in a recent interview about welfare's fiercest and most prominent critic: Mr. Murray "did the country a great service. He and I have often disagreed, but I think his analysis is essentially right. . . . There's no question that [ending welfare payments to single mothers] would work. The question is . . . is it morally right?"
Mr. Clinton's embrace of the Murray analysis means the intellectual debate over welfare policy is essentially over; we are now debating the relative merits of changing the current system vs. dismantling it.
Unfortunately, it is not at all clear that politicians -- including most Republicans -- are willing to propose legislation intellectually consistent with the arguments and analysis. And Democrats can be expected to press the debate on Mr. Clinton's terms.
Most of the proposals currently on the table miss the essential point of welfare reform. The point is not to ensure tougher work provisions and job training; rather it is to go after a system that fosters illegitimacy and its attendant social pathologies.
Making adoption easier is an essential and compassionate part of this effort. Adoption is the best alternative we have for protecting a child's interest in a post-welfare world. The demand for adoption is virtually unlimited, but society has made adoption exceedingly difficult. Lifting restrictions on interracial adoption and easing age limitations for adoptive parents will help ensure that large numbers of children will be adopted into good, stable, loving homes. And for older children, we must invest generously in the kind of orphanages and group homes that provide order and care.
Ending welfare in this way is prudent, humane and politically smart. It would be prudent because the social science evidence is in: Illegitimacy is the surest road to economic poverty and social decay. And welfare subsidizes and sustains illegitimacy.
It would be politically smart for Republicans because anything less than calling for an end to welfare will probably ensure that the debate will be conducted on Mr. Clinton's terms. That's a sure political loser. On the other hand, calling for the complete abolition of aid for dependent children is an opportunity for Republicans to make a clean, principled break with an old, failed system.
The current welfare system is the most pernicious government program of the last quarter-century. We have lost large parts of an entire generation because of the human wreckage left in its wake. Enough is enough. It's time to pull the plug.
William Bennett, former U.S. education secretary and drug czar, is a co-director of Empower America and author of "The Book of Virtues." Peter Wehner is director of policy at Empower America. They wrote this commentary for Newsday.