Welfare reform unfinished

August 11, 1996|By Linda Seebach

THE FEDERAL welfare system was a mistake from the beginning, and this month's overwhelming vote in Congress to abandon it is merely a recognition of something the rest of the country has known for a long time.

When it takes decades to fix something that is so clearly broken, that's evidence of a more general problem.

Bad federal policies are much more destructive than bad state policies. They affect far more people, they're harder to change and they deprive us of the opportunity to try out a variety of policy options before we bet the whole country on one solution.

Look at a single mother with a child or two, and the case for helping her seems compelling. No one wants children to suffer. Politicians are terrified of being accused of wanting children to suffer.

The more desperate her circumstances -- she's only a teen-ager, she hasn't graduated from high school, the father of her child is unknown or irresponsible -- the stronger is the urge to do the compassionate thing and provide her with help so she can live a decent life.

But the more we do to help women in these desperate circumstances, the more of them there are in those circumstances.

It's not that all, or even most, of the women who end up on welfare for many years have babies for that purpose. Women have babies because women love babies.

But there are obvious disincentives to raising a child when you have no education, no job, no husband and no particular prospects. Those disincentives are reduced by the existence of welfare as an alternative, and so women who would otherwise avoid putting themselves in such an unenviable position are tempted to think it wouldn't be so bad.

But it is bad, for them and for their children. Raising a child on welfare is a job, but it's a dead-end job. The pay is bad, there's no possibility of advancement.

When a woman who began single motherhood in her teens ventures into the job market for the first time, after her children are older, she will be years behind where she would have been had she chosen to wait.

Despite the heroic, and frequently successful, efforts of many single mothers to raise their children alone, most children, too, are better off when they grow up with two parents, when their mother has finished her education, when they aren't poor.

Opponents of the change in welfare policy argue that it will make more children poor -- 1.1 million of them, according to one estimate from the Urban Institute. But over six decades of federal welfare guarantees the proportion of children in poverty has been rising.

If the changes in welfare policy we are making now had been made a generation ago, there would be fewer poor children now than there are. And fewer children growing up not only without fathers, but in neighborhoods where hardly anybody has a father at home. Or an uncle or a grandfather, for that matter.

This is not only, or even primarily, a matter of race. Some studies have shown that the apparent correlation between race and poverty, or between race and crime, disappears when the effect of illegitimacy is taken into account.

It's striking, though, that the welfare issue didn't really gain attention in Washington until the number of young white women raising welfare babies began to rise sharply. It's now about at the level black illegitimacy was 25 years ago.

If states had been free to make their own policy, the disaster would not have lasted so long. Some states would have decided to try something different, and the policies that worked the best would have been imitated.

That means that the current reform doesn't really go far enough. It gives the states block grants to carry out their welfare programs, but if Washington can afford to give money back to the states, it ought not to collect it in the first place. And it continues to impose uniform policies, although no one has any idea whether they are the best ones.

Linda Seebach is editorial page editor of the Valley Times in Pleasanton, California.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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