Collateral Damage

September 14, 1995|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- As the welfare-reform debate begins to boil, the place to begin is with an elemental fact: No child in America asked to be here.

Each was summoned into existence by the acts of adults. And no child is going to be spiritually improved by being collateral damage in a bombardment of severities targeted at adults who may or may not deserve more severe treatment from the welfare system.

Phil Gramm says welfare recipients are people ''in the wagon'' who ought to get out and ''help the rest of us pull.'' Well. Of the 14 million people receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children, 9 million are children. Even if we get all these free-riders into wee harnesses, the wagon will not move much faster.

Furthermore, there is hardly an individual or industry in America that is not in some sense ''in the wagon,'' receiving some federal subvention. If everyone gets out, the wagon may rocket along. But no one is proposing that. Instead, welfare reform may give a whole new meaning to the phrase ''women and children first.''

Marx said that history's great events appear twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. Pat Moynihan worries that a tragedy visited upon a vulnerable population three decades ago may now recur, not as farce but again as tragedy.

Mr. Moynihan was there on October 31, 1963, when President Kennedy, in his last signing ceremony, signed legislation to further the ''deinstitutionalization'' of the mentally ill. Advances in psychotropic drugs, combined with ''community-based programs,'' supposedly would make possible substantial reductions of the populations of mental institutions.

But the drugs were not as effective as had been hoped, and community-based programs never materialized in sufficient numbers and sophistication. What materialized instead were mentally ill homeless people. Senator Moynihan warns

that welfare reform could produce a similar unanticipated increase in children sleeping on, and freezing to death on, grates.

Actually, cities will have to build more grates. Here are the percentages of children on AFDC at some point during 1993 in five cities: Detroit (67), Philadelphia (57), Chicago (46), New York (39), Los Angeles (38). ''There are,'' says Senator Moynihan, ''not enough social workers, not enough nuns, not enough Salvation Army workers'' to care for children who would be purged from the welfare rolls were Congress to decree (as candidate Bill Clinton proposed) a two-year limit for welfare eligibility.

Don't worry, say the designers of a brave new world, welfare recipients will soon be working. However, 60 percent of welfare families -- usually families without fathers -- have children under 6 years old. Who will care for those children in the year 2000 if Congress decrees that 50 percent of welfare recipients must by then be in work programs? And whence springs this conservative Congress' faith in work programs?

Much of the welfare population has no family memory of regular work, and little of the social capital of habits and disciplines that come with work. Life in, say, Chicago's Robert Taylor housing project produces what sociologist Emil Durkheim called ''a dust of individuals,'' not an employable population.

A 1994 Columbia University study concluded that most welfare mothers are negligibly educated and emotionally disturbed and 40 percent are serious drug abusers. Small wonder a Congressional Budget Office study estimated an annual cost of $3,000 just for monitoring each workfare enrollee -- in addition to the bill for training to give such people elemental skills.

Senator Moynihan says that a two-year limit for welfare eligibility, and work requirements, might have worked 30 years ago, when the nation's illegitimacy rate was 5 percent, but today it is 33 percent. Don't worry, say reformers, we'll take care of that by tinkering with the incentives: There will be no payments for additional children born while the mother is on welfare.

But Nicholas Eberstadt of Harvard and the American Enterprise Institute says: Suppose today's welfare policy incentives to illegitimacy were transported back in time to Salem, Massachusetts, in 1660. How many additional illegitimate births would have occurred in Puritan Salem? Few, because the people of Salem in 1660 believed in Hell and believed that what today are called ''disorganized lifestyles'' led to Hell. Congress cannot legislate useful attitudes.

Mr. Moynihan, who spent August writing his annual book at his farm in Delaware County, New York, notes that in 1963 that county's illegitimacy rate was 3.8 percent. Today it is 32 percent -- almost exactly the national average. And no one knows why the county (which is rural and 98.8 percent white) or the nation has so changed.

Hence no one really knows what to do about it. Conservatives say, well, nothing could be worse than the current system. They are underestimating their ingenuity.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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