Halt aid to teen moms? It'll cost

March 03, 1995|By Kay S. Hymowitz

WILL DENYING welfare benefits to mothers under 18, as Republicans on a House subcommittee recently recommended,do anything to reduce the half-million babies born to teen-agers each year?

Critics of this position are undoubtedly correct that teen-agers don't rub their hands in gleeful anticipation of their coming windfall. Many inner-city teens I've spoken with have about as much affection for the welfare system as House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., does.

But this doesn't mean welfare plays no role in their life script. Perhaps the best way to think about the dynamic comes from the recovery movement and its dealings with dependencies. In the dysfunctional American family, the teen mother may be the dependent, but by offering her money, however paltry the amount, the government becomes a co-dependent. Welfare may not promote, but it certainly enables her destructive behavior.

Also overlooked in the debate over teen pregnancy is a truth known to most of our human ancestors and indeed to Third World inhabitants today: Nothing is more natural than a 16-year-old having a baby. Only in more developed countries, like our own, which require both a lengthy period of education, are young men and women asked to delay their childbearing into their 20s. Given this dissonance between biological urge and cultural necessity, the question is not why so many American teen-agers have babies, but why so many do not.

And the answer to this question always has been painfully simple: They didn't have babies because their fathers would take out shotguns, their mothers would shed lifelong tears of sorrow, and their friends, neighbors and teachers would shun them.

Now consider the situation of a 16-year-old in, say, Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Bedford-Stuyvesant section today. Many of her friends and cousins have babies. Her father, likely at best to be an occasional visitor, has lost the authority of the shotgun. Her mother, perhaps only 32 herself, is ambivalent. Her high school may not offer Shakespeare or calculus but it has a nursery and parenting class. And how does the government try to derail her off this teen mommy track? It offers her $468 a month if she has a baby.

Democrats insist there is no correlation between the amount of benefits and the rate of teen childbearing. But the numbers are irrelevant. Even Democrats know that you cannot tell kids not to do something and then give them money when they go ahead and do it anyway. This is a textbook example of co-dependency.

Critics also point to young women like the one quoted in a recent Rockefeller Institute Bulletin: "You're young, you're madly in love with this guy and you go and have this baby. Welfare doesn't have nothing to do with your having babies. Nothing. Nothing whatsoever." Her words have the feel of truth; one thing we know about kids is that they have a dreamy attitude -- that is, when they have any attitude -- about the future.

But the fact is an inner-city teen today is no more capable than Charles Murray, of "Bell Curve" fame, is of saying exactly to what extent welfare has enabled the teen mommy track to flourish. She has never known a world without welfare. It's a good guess, though, that in such a world both her own and her boyfriend's family, anticipating the economic hardship a baby would bring to their households, might have sent a chilling message on the subject from their youngsters' earliest years.

If Democrats profess not to know these things, they nevertheless know something Republicans don't. Denying benefits to girls is going to be expensive, at least in the short run. Group homes -- such as those proposed by author Myron Magnet -- where young mothers can live with their babies under the guidance of a mature couple offer the only humane solution for the young mothers whose families cannot or will not support them and for the babies who will undoubtedly be born no matter what government does. But these homes will not come cheap.

And Democrats appear to sense something else: Denying benefits to girls under 18 cannot revitalize schools that fail to educate or parents who fail to guide. It cannot bring back either jobs or marriage, both just about stone dead, to the inner city. And it cannot resurrect fatherhood among the underclass where it is almost as archaic as the iceman. Cut off benefits for teen-agers -- but don't do it with glee. Co-dependents can't just walk away from the problems they've enabled.

Kay S. Hymowitz is a contributing editor at City Journal, the Manhattan Institute's quarterly.

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