Homes for unwed mothers

January 11, 1995|By Mona Charen

BEFORE THE ELECTION of 1994, there was, in Washington, something called "welfare reform." That debate, sterile and familiar, featured Democrats recommending more spending on job training and day care -- indeed, Democrats were often heard to say that good reform would actually cost more than the current system -- and Republicans offering alternatives that stressed work requirements.

But that debate is history now. No one is seriously talking about job training as the solution to the culture of dependency. Exit-poll data help explain why. When voters were asked to choose between two descriptions of the current welfare system, only 12 percent said the system "changes things for the better by helping people who are unable to support themselves." Seventy-five percent agreed instead that the system "changes things for the worse by making able-bodied people too dependent on government aid." Sixty-five percent of whites and 61 percent of blacks think "most people who receive welfare payments are taking advantage of the system," and 55 percent of whites and 40 percent of blacks think tax money now being spent on welfare should be either reduced or ended.

With Republicans controlling Congress (if not yet fully in charge in Washington), the welfare reform debate has assumed new contours. For one thing, there is no agreement that nationwide reform should be designed and implemented from Washington. A strong tide is running in favor of returning discretion in these matters to the states. Charles Murray, author of "The Bell Curve," has suggested that one state (preferably an ethnically homogenous, small state) ought to experiment with eliminating Aid to Families with Dependent Children benefits to unmarried mothers altogether.

Even among those who are thinking in terms of new federal guidelines, there is more than one view of how to reform the system. But the discussion is now informed by the ideas of Gertrude Himmelfarb, William Bennett, Marvin Olasky, Karl Zinsmeister, Myron Magnet and others -- thinkers who stress that the welfare mess is not primarily an economic problem but a moral and philosophical one.

Writing in the current issue of The American Enterprise, George Liebman surveys the world of maternity homes, past and present, and provides a glimpse of the kind of moral order that once kept illegitimacy down to 4 percent of births.

Before about 1915, there was no government aid of any kind for unwed mothers. They were forced to call upon their families, churches and local charities. Women who found themselves with what is now styled a "crisis pregnancy" took advantage of an extensive network of maternity homes.

A few things were notable about those homes. For one thing, they did not provide what every modern social worker seems to strive for, namely, a non-judgmental environment. To the contrary, these homes, run mostly by religious groups, provided kind but firm guidance to the women in their charge. Pregnant women were provided with good nutrition, medical services, lessons in child care and adoption assistance. They were also encouraged, through religious instruction, to avoid producing any more fatherless babies. The Crittenden Homes, located around the country, strove for "conversions" among unwed mothers.

Mr. Liebman urges that today too, unwed mothers, as a class, "should be seen as persons peculiarly in need of supervision, education, discipline and reform, and not as appropriate beneficiaries of unconditional cash payments." Group homes should be the only locus of government aid, he suggests. They will not succeed as an add-on to a system of direct payments.

In a group setting, mothers, particularly very young ones, can be counseled about the benefits of adoption. All can be educated about nutrition, infant development and proper care taking. And few will be able to get away with child abuse.

It is an idea that would go some way toward restoring a lost sense of moral order -- that women who produce illegitimate babies are not within their "rights," they are committing a terrible wrong, and the community must do everything possible to improve the life chances of the child, while discouraging the mother from repeating her mistake.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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