Welfare and the bully pulpit

February 08, 1994

In journeying to a junior high school in a beleaguered District of Columbia neighborhood, President Clinton struck a bigger blow against the universally reviled welfare system than a dozen detailed reform proposals.

However you analyze the issue, you can't escape the fact that young, single mothers with no marketable skills will always need large doses of government help. The real challenge is not the pipe dream of designing the perfect welfare system, but finding ways to keep these precarious family units from being formed at all. That's a challenge better suited to the pulpit -- especially the bully pulpit of the presidency -- than to bureaucracy.

President Clinton rose to that challenge last week, when he took the occasion to talk to students about personal responsibility, about right and wrong.

"Is it right or wrong if you're a boy to get some girl pregnant and then forget about it? I think it's wrong," he said. "I think it's not only wrong for them. I think it's wrong for you. It's something you pay for the rest of your life. You carry that in the back of your head: somewhere there's some child out there you didn't take care of who's in terrible shape because of something you didn't do."

If it is true that only families, rather than government, can effectively rear children, then it is equally true that no amount of reform can "fix" the welfare problem. There will always be people who need government help; the real challenge is to make sure that children are not born to young people who are not yet prepared for parenthood.

This is more a moral issue than a policy response. In that context, it is worth noting President Clinton chose to visit Kramer Junior High School because agents in his Social Security detail decided to volunteer time to the school as a Christmas gift for the Clinton family. In isolation, such individual efforts won't make big differences, but taken together they add up. The same is true of the public attitudes that produce responsible behavior.

As more social observers are pointing out, illegitimacy -- particularly births of babies to girls who are a long way from self-sufficiency -- is exacting an intolerable price on society. The cost of welfare dependency is only the most visible toll; the real costs spread much further.

Bully for President Clinton for using his pulpit to preach a needed sermon. Let it be the first of many.

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