Teen-agers and welfare

June 16, 1994

President Clinton's welfare proposal has drawn fire from left and right alike. Liberals don't like many of its punitive aspects and especially resent the fact that the administration is funding much of the cost of the reforms by squeezing other social programs, shifting the burden of misery. Conservatives dismiss the plan by saying it fails to fulfill the president's promise "to end welfare as we know it."

The program is complex and ambitious, and unless the economy grows briskly, enough private sector jobs for welfare recipients will simply not exist. Certainly, they don't now in Maryland. Unless that changes, the government could be saddled with the long-term proposition of administering a work program, perhaps at great expense.

Many proposals in the Clinton plan will be eliminated or changed by Congress -- and many of them should be. What we like about the plan is not so much the particulars as the possibility that it will draw attention to the festering phenomenon of out-of-wedlock births. To his great credit, President Clinton is beginning to bring the power of the presidential bully pulpit to this issue, reminding America's young people that governments don't raise children, parents do -- preferably two of them. That is an important message, one that needs to be heard across racial and economic lines.

Much of the worry about illegitimacy focuses on teen-age mothers. There is good reason for that, since an unmarried teen-age mother is likely to end up dependent on welfare for a longer time than older women. As a new report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute points out, adolescents actually account for smaller proportion of out-of-wedlock births today (30 percent) than in 1970 (50 percent).

The Guttmacher study has some encouraging news about teen-agers and sex, finding that it's a myth that most teen-agers become sexually active at a very early age (70 percent of 15-year-olds are not) and that well-designed intervention programs have helped many teens delay intercourse.

More disturbing are findings from younger teens who have been sexually active; 70 percent who reported having intercourse before age 14 say they were coerced, often by a significantly older male. Equally significant is the finding that poverty itself seems to increase the chances that a teen-ager will give birth. Any government initiative that truly wants to get at the root of the widely despised "culture of dependency" would take a close look at all these factors.

The prospects are slim that the Clinton welfare plan will become law anytime soon. But the proposal will serve a good purpose if it encourages a debate that separates popular myths from the realities and prospects of poor families in America.

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