We punish the poor for being poor

November 19, 1995|By Sara Engram

THERE ARE PLENTY of problems with ''welfare as we know it.'' But one of the most pernicious -- and one neither party has fully addressed -- is the fact that in important ways it treats poor people differently from other Americans.

The welfare system is both punishing and patronizing, and the result is that poor neighborhoods take on dangerous characteristics. In short, welfare has helped to drive a wedge between poor people and the rest of the society.

The role of men

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the contrasting roles men play in middle-class communities and in welfare-dependent areas. Despite rising divorce rates, middle-class men are considered essential members of families who are expected to contribute morally, emotionally and financially to the rearing of 00 their children.

In contrast, the welfare system has made men irrelevant to their families. After decades of penalizing welfare families for the presence of a male, men are virtually invisible in poor families. When you hear talk of poor ''families,'' the speaker is usually referring only to mothers and children.

Yet if poor men try to play a positive role, perhaps by telling children not to break bottles on the sidewalk, a resistant child has an effective weapon of retaliation: threaten to report his presence to a welfare worker, who could cut his family's monthly allotment.

Another example: Generally, a biological father is expected to retain financial responsibility for his children, even if the mother marries another man. That's why we have a system of child-support collection and enforcement.

But if a poor man wants to marry a woman on welfare and is willing to take on the role of stepfather, the welfare system stands ready with a penalty.

Unlike a middle-class man who marries and becomes a stepfather, a poor man who marries a woman on welfare is expected to take financial responsibility for all her children, jeopardizing their welfare payments.

Again, the welfare system offers the wrong incentives: Don't get married, don't make commitments, don't form two-parent families -- unless you're willing to pay a price not required of other men in the society.

Why are we surprised, then, when we hear only negative things about the role of men in these neighborhoods? A world without positive roles for men is one in which it is vastly more difficult to instill in children the values mainstream America holds dear.

Generous, to a point

This is one of the painful realities welfare reformers have not fully faced. On one hand, Americans are generous people who don't want others to suffer, especially women and children. On the other hand, we don't want to subsidize ''able-bodied'' people -- particularly men who, we assume, could be out working if they cared enough to persevere.

Unfortunately, as thousands of industrial jobs have disappeared from urban areas, our support for jobless families has only added to the marginalization of poor men. One result is the fact that fatherless homes have become the norm in many neighborhoods. Another is that our streets are increasingly dangerous places.

Treat them as human

If we are truly interested in welfare reform, we should begin treating poor people more like we treat ourselves -- as people capable of responsible behavior. Maybe that could happen if we worry less about punishing poor people and worry more about finding ways to reinforce the values that make all families stronger and all neighborhoods better places to live.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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