A Neat Idea from Newt

November 17, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston.--I bet you were wondering what imaginative, innovative, strikingly new ideas the Republican leadership would come up with to help guide us into the future.

Try these for openers: Charity and Orphanages.

Before the post-election week was out, Newt Gingrich, the chubby-cheeked cherub of conservatism, and his cohorts were unveiling a wish list of assorted plans to end welfare as anybody knows it.

Plan One: Let the states ban cash benefits for teen-age mothers. Plan Two: Use the savings for adoptions and orphanages. Plan Three: Two months and you're out. Plan Four: If the women can't or don't find work, well, in Newt's words, ''I think I would like to expand private charities.''

Ah yes, back to the good old days. First Mr. Gingrich calls the Clintons ''counterculture McGoverniks,'' a phrase reeking of nostalgia for Cold War enmities. Then his fellow time-travelers talk about unraveling Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Now we zip right on back to the Eden before FDR's New Deal.

Orphanages? Been there. Done that.

In the early part of this century, more than half the children in orphanages were not in fact orphans. They had mothers who couldn't support them.

These orphanages were not only Dickensian institutions where children were often literally lost, but they were expensive. The reformers wanted to take the money and give it to mothers.

At the height of the Depression, as historian Linda Gordon points out in her book ''Pitied but Not Entitled,'' being for public assistance was like being for motherhood. What we now call welfare was established as one small part of the omnibus Social Security Act of 1935. This was the same act that started old-age insurance and unemployment insurance. Back then, the elderly didn't seem to be more deserving than single mothers.

In casting his vote for the bill in 1935, Arkansas Rep. Claude Fuller expressed the florid vision of the era: ''I can see the careworn and dejected widow shout with joy upon returning from the neighbor's washtub after having received assurance of financial aid for her children. I see her with the youngest child upon her knee and the others clustered by her, kissing the tears of joy from her pale cheek . . . ''

It didn't happen quite like that. From the very beginning, those programs designed for working men were based on the belief that they had rights. They were planned to preserve the status of breadwinners.

But aid to single mothers was based on compassion, the belief that women and children had needs. The reformers themselves worried about undermining the breadwinner's family.

So public assistance was deliberately designed to keep women out of the work force during the Depression. At the same time, as Ms. Gordon points out, it was meant ''to prevent its recipients from being too comfortable on their own.'' And it was the only program that held the recipients up to ''moral scrutiny.''

The end result of this two-tier system is that old-age insurance, now called Social Security, is so popular that it's untouchable even by the new Newtism. For that matter, no one would dare suggest ending unemployment insurance for a down-sized worker and putting his or her kids in orphanages.

But today ''welfare,'' is the target of more knives than the Thanksgiving turkey. There is literally no remaining support for the program as it exists, not even, or especially not, among the recipients.

The country that supported Aid to Families with Dependent Children as a safety net now thinks of it as a permanent trap. The image is no longer a widowed or deserted mother. It's an unwed teen-age mother. What's driving the debate now is a certain desperation that we ''do something'' about unwed teen-age mothers.

But there are 14 million Americans on welfare, including one out of seven children. In this atmosphere, the Clinton plan ''to end welfare as we know it'' combined a two-year time limit -- a deadline -- with some help across the divide from welfare to work. It included health coverage, child care, training.

I supported that balancing act -- and still do -- though with concerns about how hard some might fall. I also support the notion of capping payments for additional children born to mothers on welfare.

But the centrist compromise is now being shoved to the left fringe-nik side of the debate. And the ideas being shoved into the spotlight? Charity. Orphanages. How refreshing.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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