A Shortage of Good Men

January 22, 1995|By SARA ENGRAM

A permit for childbearing? No children without a degree? What could be further from American notions of personal freedom and self-determination?

But listen carefully to the welfare debate and you can hear how Democrats and Republicans alike are kidding themselves.

If the intention of welfare reform is to stem the number of children born to parents unable to support them, and if we live in an economy where most unskilled laborers can't earn enough to support a family, then at some point Americans must face a question nobody wants to touch: Do poor people have a right to have children?

The question itself illustrates the complexities and outright contradictions that are always part of debates about parental responsibility and government support. Americans are famously wary of any government intervention in such intimate matters. Yet this is also a country in which fanatics are willing to kill people for providing access to abortions.

Given the escalating violence against abortion providers -- and the reluctance of states to give poor women access to abortion services -- the more operative issue would seem to be whether poor women have a right not to bear children.

Yet from President Clinton to Speaker Gingrich to virtually every governor in the nation, there is a consistent theme: Welfare recipients should no longer be able to count on something for nothing.

Girls should stay in school, get a diploma and wait to become mothers until they can support a child.

Boys should think twice before assuming that fatherhood will make them a man. The real ticket to manhood is a paycheck that will feed, clothe and shelter a child.

And both boys and girls need to grow up recognizing that married parents have a big advantage.

You'll find no disagreement here.

But examine the raw statistics, as Christopher Jencks and Kathryn Edin did in a recent article in The American Prospect, and the rhetoric of personal responsibility doesn't soar as easily.

Democrats, with their demands that welfare mothers be willing to work, don't come to terms with the facts of the marketplace. The wages these women can expect to make, even with a high school diploma or the equivalent, will not provide enough income to make ends meet.

Republicans, who tend to put greater stress on moral issues like out-of-wedlock births, point to statistics showing that married couples are much better able to support their children than single parents. That's true, but it also fails to acknowledge some of the reasons single mothers don't get married.

As Mr. Jencks and Ms. Edin point out, the demographics don't add up. They cite figures from 1989, just before the latest recession began, when the country had 22 million women between the ages of 25 and 34. Of that number, some 20 million either had a child or wanted one.

But there was a shortage of men who could in fact support a wife and child. In that age group, fewer than 16 million men were earning an annual income of $12,000 or more. Of that number, some were reluctant to marry; others may have been unsuitable for other reasons -- drug use, abusive behavior and the like. In short, there was a significant mismatch in the number of suitable husbands and the number of women who needed one.

We may believe -- and believe strongly -- that these women should not have children until they can be sure of supporting them. But are Americans of any political stripe willing to accept the interference in personal freedom to prevent those births? Of course not.

Neither approach -- the Democrats' work incentives or the Republicans' punitive measures -- will do away with the problems welfare reformers would like to solve. One goal of welfare reform is reduce the numbers by imposing punitive measures on welfare recipients. But poor women will continue to have babies.

And the vagaries of life will ensure that some women will give birth ready to support their children, only to encounter obstacles like economic recessions or illness.

Advocates for children's services like to cite the African proverb that it takes a entire village to raise a child -- a profound and useful thought.

But that proverb doesn't cancel out the other important truth about children: They also need parents. A child who belongs only to the village belongs in effect to nobody.

There are children who belong to nobody, at least nobody capable of taking care of them. But there are plenty more children whose parents, with the right kind of help, can fulfill their roles while instilling the goals of self-sufficiency.

The best approach to welfare reform is to search for ways to nudge as many poor families as possible toward the second category, while doing everything we can to reduce the number of children who, in effect, belong to nobody.

Sara Engram is editorial-page director of The Evening Sun.

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