WHEN HILLARY Rodham Clinton called Republican plans for increasing the use of orphanages "unbelievable and absurd," Newt Gingrich urged her to rent the movie "Boys Town."
But that 1938 classic -- which starred Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy -- portrayed an idealized orphanage that no longer exists, if it ever did.
Any plans to revive America's ailing welfare programs on its model are nothing but Hollywood illusions.
The truth about Boys Town was most famously revealed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 article in the Omaha Sun.
That article reported that Boys Town's net worth was "at least $209 million -- possibly much more," which would have placed it among the 10 best-endowed universities in the United States, richer than Notre Dame or any other Catholic college.
Boys Town was recognized more for its fund-raising prowess than for the quality of its child care. In 1972, it brought in $25 million from investment income and public donations raised through a heart-rending mail campaign.
The movie, which appears on television every year at Christmastime, played no small role in Boys Town's fund-raising. Then and now, no other child care institution has any hope of matching its resources. So it is virtually impossible for any orphanage to emulate Boys Town's financial success.
More germane to the current controversy, in the '70s, Boys Town's management concluded that the kind of child care shown in the movie was outdated. We replaced cavernous dormitories with modern houses for more manageable numbers of youths.
Those residences were expensive, even by today's standards. No longer were the boys reared by men working eight-hour shifts. Instead, well-trained husband-and-wife teams spent 24 hours a day with the children, all the time supervised by mental health professionals.
Still, the Boys Town model was far from perfect. It was seldom successful with the most incorrigible youths and it was very expensive.
Newt Gingrich's stance is antithetical to his campaign theme of family values. He wants to remove children to orphanages if their mothers are young, unwed and impoverished.
True, such an environment poses developmental risks, but taking children away from their mothers is far from certain to help their development.
Neither poverty nor a single mother need doom a child. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich rose above daunting childhoods without being put in orphanages. Yet their strength of character alone did not enable them to prevail. Social support was crucial.
Studies of Americans who grew up during the Depression have shown that children stand the best chance of transcending poverty if their families hold together and they get some help through the types of government programs that Mr. Gingrich now would dismantle.
Likewise, my research with children of mentally ill parents shows that the parent-child relationship is vital to development. Parents on welfare invariably tell me that social services were more helpful to them than financial assistance alone.
Children who are put in institutions, whether group homes or traditional orphanages, undergo a radical departure from "normal" family life.
They are separated not only from their parents but also from siblings and stable adults who can act as role models such as grandparents and teachers. Once in the "placement cycle," they are often repeatedly shifted from one institution to another. So much for family values!
Mr. Gingrich's proposal will also subvert his campaign pledge of fiscal responsibility. Only a bare majority -- 55 percent to 60 percent -- of American children will grow up in undisrupted contact with both biological parents.
Almost 10 million American children are supported through welfare. More than half would lose their government assistance under Mr. Gingrich's reform plans.
No doubt many would be taken in by relatives, but even if the figure was as high as 80 percent, 1 million children would need institutional care. This would cost at least $40 billion a year.
Does Mr. Gingrich intend to impose this burden on the electorate?
Some child care institutions have excellent therapeutic programs. Others are purely custodial.
Children raised in custodial homes are more likely to have serious problems adjusting to society when they leave. Children reared in supportive, family-like environments will become better adults, parents and taxpayers -- all things that Mr. Gingrich says he wants.
Boys Town now gives this kind of care, but one year there costs $45,000 to $55,000 per child, not including fund-raising and construction. Sometimes such investments are essential, but this one would not be fiscally responsible.
Republicans and Democrats rightly agree that traditional welfare programs can lead to dependency.