The Trap of Welfare Reform

January 20, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- There's at least one missing ingredient in the caldron of welfare-reform ideas brewing on Capitol Hill. It's a spoonful of something called humility.

For a long time, conservatives in this country have accused liberals of ''social engineering'' -- trying to change private behavior through public policy. Now they're trying it.

At this point, the prime target of the welfare reformers is the unwed, uneducated and unemployed poor woman. In the economic lingo that the Republicans prefer, welfare is now called an ''incentive'' for having a baby. They talk about withdrawing AFDC as a disincentive -- economic birth control.

But the truth is that the reformers -- left, right or center -- don't know how to penetrate and turn around the teen cultures in which parenthood has become too common. There isn't a magic, one-size-fits-all-people policy to reduce the number of kids born to women who are out of wedlock and out of luck.

So if humility is the best policy, it's smart to think small. To think about doing what we know can make a difference.

This is what we know. In America, a striking 60 percent of all pregnancies are unplanned. That figure rises to 76 percent among the poor. These poor pregnant women are somewhat less likely to have abortions than higher-income women.

We also know that sexually active poor and low-income teen-agers use contraceptives less regularly than upper-income teens. And we know that they are much less likely to have abortions. Only four out of 10 pregnant poor teens have abortions compared to seven out of 10 pregnant higher-income teens.

The assumption of the social engineers is that these women are getting pregnant for the welfare check. But we know from the Alan Guttmacher Institute that between a fifth and a third of poor women who had unplanned births would have had abortions if they'd had the money -- if Medicaid funding were available.

Nevertheless, there has been hardly a word spoken in the welfare debate about birth control or about the way federal funding and access to family-planning clinics has steadily diminished over the last 15 years. As for abortion funding? It's the rare politician who has dared to touch that hot button.

Talking about abortion and welfare in the same breath is virtually forbidden. Pro-choice politicians don't want to appear to favor abortion over birth for the poor, or to endorse abortion as a money-saver. The others oppose abortion altogether. But if we are talking about government programs influencing private decisions, there's no way to keep abortion out of the equation.

The composite welfare plan being drawn up by the latest batch of social engineers looks suspiciously like a trap. The government already offers an ''incentive.'' It will pay for childbirth but it won't pay for abortion, except in cases of rape or incest. RTC The Republican contract, after paying for the birth of a child, would withhold AFDC from the mother who's a teen or has another child on welfare. And within two years every mother and child would be cut off, though the toddler might be offered a slot in an orphanage.

It's possible that Congress will adopt a different plan that passes the welfare buck to the states in exchange for taking on the whole Medicaid bill. What would happen then? Today 16 states pay for Medicaid abortions with their own tax dollars. After the swap, could the federal government prevent or hamper the states from paying for abortions? Nobody knows.

The Republicans insist that their welfare reform will save money, though we don't know the social cost accounting -- how many homeless, how many hungry. But if we're talking money, here are some other figures. Every public dollar spent on family planning saves $4 on medical and welfare costs. So does every dollar spent on abortion.

Funding Medicaid abortions would save $612 million over two years. Not by encouraging abortion, but by enabling poor women to make their own choices. Just like women who aren't poor.

Abortion is by no means a cure for the problems of welfare dependency, of poverty, of hopelessness, of girls looking for babies to love them and boys who can sire but not father. But it's one piece of the puzzle we can put in place.

Americans don't want to pay for abortions and don't want to pay for welfare. We have tied poor women into our own double bind. Now, in this momentous debate about the future of welfare, we have to untie our tongues.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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