Resurgent Republicans in Congress under Newt Gingrich are breathing new life into an idea whose time most people thought had already come and gone.
They want to bring back orphanages and other forms of state-supervised residences to care for the illegitimate children of young women who would be cut from welfare rolls under their proposals.
In addition to evoking images of little Oliver Twist begging for another bowl of porridge, the initiative, a part of the Republicans' Personal Responsibility Act, has sent a shiver of apprehension through the community of child-care workers.
This is because the idea collides with the principal tenet that has guided their profession for nearly a century: that children are raised better in families, even imperfect or incomplete families, than in institutions.
Resort to orphanages, said one political scientist writing a book on the subject, is a return to the very institution whose failure led to the welfare system as it exists today.
Matthew Crenson, a Johns Hopkins political scientist, said the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program actually evolved from earlier measures devised as remedies for the ills visited upon thousands of children raised in orphanages.
The movement to reconstitute orphanages or other forms of supervised group-living outside the family has been growing for several years. It has been supported by conservative Republicans such as William J. Bennett, academics like Charles Murray (co-author of "The Bell Curve"), and more recently by Rep. Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia.
The nature and preoccupations of some of its other partisans, prominent criminologists James Q. Wilson and John J. DiIulio, suggest that though it is being touted as welfare reform, it is also seen as an anti-crime measure. Its partisans believe it would help reduce illegitimacy, which many people think stimulates crime.
Another partisan of the orphanage movement is Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. Dr. Rector credited President Clinton for having spoken out about the problem of illegitimacy as a key cause of crime. But he faulted the president for failing to reform the system to reduce the national illegitimacy rate, now one out of every three births.
The Republican proposal in the House of Representatives, Dr. Rector believes, would do that by cutting off AFDC and housing assistance to young unmarried women for the care of their children. This, he said, would make having illegitimate children less attractive.
The main author of the GOP measure is Rep. James M. Talent of Missouri. He said the money withheld from the mothers -- both for housing and child support -- would go to the states. They would be encouraged to use it to create group homes, where several mothers and their children would live closely supervised lives.
These mothers, Dr. Rector explained, "would have no walking-around money for cigarettes, booze, clothes. Some of these women like to dress their kids up. They would have to take parenting classes, finish high school and have a curfew. The bottom line is, this would be the only option for these women."
Part of the federal money diverted to the states would finance the orphanages for the children of those mothers who did not want to keep them, or couldn't.
Child-care professionals argue strenuously against this. Said Earl Stuck, the director of residential care services of the Child
Welfare League of America, a national children's lobby: "I don't see any connection between putting kids in orphanages and illegitimacy. Women don't get pregnant to get higher welfare payments."
And on the matter of costs, he said: "One of the things Gingrich talks of is warm, caring, loving orphanages. To produce that would be very costly [over $100 a day per child]. You will not save money if you start throwing kids into residential care unless you cut the costs [of running the institutions], and then we're talking about the Dickensian orphanages."
Currently, according to Mr. Stuck, about a half-million children are in "out of home care." About 400,000 are in foster homes, and the remaining 100,000, nearly all suffering from learning difficulties or behavioral problems, live temporarily in residential care facilities.
These are not orphanages, nor, Mr. Stuck said, are there many "dictionary definition orphans" -- that is, children with no parent at all -- in the United States. Accordingly, there are few actual orphanages left.
The orphanage had its heyday in America during the last century. Most were religious institutions, and among them most were affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. Protestant orphanages began to sharply increase in number during the latter part of the century. The two Christian sects competed to bring more and more children under their care.
Contemporaneously, according to Dr. Crenson, the foster home movement began to grow starting in the 1850s. It was seen as a remedy for the squalor found in many orphanages. It was also a response to what became an apparent syndrome displayed by children raised in them.
"They argued that these children became passive and dependent," said Dr. Crenson. "They described the syndrome as institutionalism."
In an effort to mediate the unhealthy Catholic-Protestant competition, President Theodore Roosevelt called a White House conference shortly before the end of his term in 1909. It produced an agreement between representatives of the two sects that any child who had a mother should be left with her, and she should be paid to take care of the child at home.
"What that did was to short-circuit all the religious controversy," said Dr. Crenson. "If you left the kid at home, religion became a non-issue."
Two years later, Illinois and Missouri (Representative Talent's state) created the mother's pension. It helped women keep their children instead of sending them to orphanages. It was seen as a more humane alternative, and a cheaper one.
This was the beginning of the now generally accepted belief that care within a family context, except for a small minority, is always preferable to an institution.
Today family preservation remains the central principle of the child-care profession. That principle has been undermined, but not turned over, by "a significant and steady rise in the number of cases of abuse" within families, owing to the increase in drug use, said Richard Small, director of the Walker School in Needham, Mass., which cares for disturbed young boys.
Following the laws enacted in Illinois and Missouri, "the idea spread like wildfire," said Dr. Crenson. "By 1920 some 40 states, including Maryland, had enacted similar legislation. Eventually, almost every state except a few in the South had mother's pensions."
Seventeen years later the mother's pension became the model for Aid to Families with Dependent Children, passed as part of the Social Security Act of 1935. By that time, orphanages were on their way to history's scrap heap.
Will they be coming back? That will depend on who is the more determined: those who want to see that, or those who want to them to remain an artifact of history.
So far wider reaction to the Republican proposal on AFDC has been slow to form. But not everywhere. Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, said: "It frightens me that people think it has the possibility of passing. Our job now as the minority party is to clearly set out the fallacies of these proposals, and that's what I intend to do."
Rachel Kunzler, an aid to Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Democrat of Maryland, quoted what she described as the senator's guiding principle with regard to welfare reform. It should not "be punitive against women and children. Reform policies shouldn't break up families."
Other Democratic opposition has manifested itself. David E. Bonior of Michigan, the House Democratic whip, came out strongly against the orphanage proposal.
Despite the disarray, and the shell-shocked state of many Democrats in Washington as a consequence of the recent elections, there are a few other indications the Republican initiative will be resisted.
"We will try to talk to as many people as possible and communicate with people in Washington and outside of Washington," said David Kass, a spokesman for the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, another national children's lobby. "The fundamental question we will be asking is, what is going to happen to those children?"
As for the Republicans themselves, there is evidence of a distinct lack of conformity on the question of orphanages. Margaret Camp, an aide to Sen. Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, asked whether the same kind of zeal for orphanages shown by the incoming House leadership is evident in the Senate, said: "I've read the same things you have, and I guess that implies there's not."
Nor, she said, has anything been written by Senate Republicans similar to the House Republicans' Personal Responsibility Act.
Kent Weaver, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution who specializes in welfare issues, also said Senate Republicans are much less likely to be eager to bring back orphanages than their House counterparts. "I think they're going to be a little bit more worried about the median position of voters on this issue," he said. "Senate Republicans will worry about being perceived as unfair, the issue that constantly dogged the presidential administration of President Reagan."
Richard O'Mara is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.