A 12-Step Program for Welfare Reform


Chicago. -- Welfare has an appalling price tag -- reason enough for Congress to be debating its future in the next few weeks. It also has a haunting human face -- reason enough to make cutbacks dauntingly difficult.

The numbers alone are staggering. The nation has spent $5.4 trillion on welfare since 1965.

That's enough, says the Heritage Foundation, to "buy every factory, all the manufacturing equipment and every office building in the United States" along with "every airline, railroad, trucking firm, telephone, television, radio, power company, hotel, retail and wholesale store in the nation, plus the entire commercial maritime fleet."

Federal and state spending on welfare -- including 80 major federal programs -- totaled $324.3 billion in 1993. That's an annual average of $3,357 for every taxpaying household in the country. Welfare costs the nation almost as much as all levels of government spend on elementary, high school and college education. The welfare bill is expected to reach $551.7 billion by 2000.

For the money we got essentially what we paid for: an enormous increase in single-parent families, children born out of wedlock, generations of women locked into poverty, public-housing ghettos, unemployable people, apathy and a spectrum of social problems.

Of course there are some successes. Countless people have used welfare as it was intended -- as a safety net, as a hand up instead of a handout, as a bridge over the trouble of a divorce, a desertion, a lost job, a dysfunctional childhood, illness, devastating bad luck. But welfare has also paid for -- and therefore "enabled," in current psychological terms -- a growing amount of social and family dysfunction. The government has become, in a sense, the co-dependent of America's most dependent people.

In well-meant efforts to ease poverty -- to see that all Americans have enough to eat, a decent place to live, clothes, schooling, health care, hope -- the government has also paid for (or supported or perhaps sometimes created) what the Heritage Foundation calls "behavioral poverty" -- which it defines to include an eroded work ethic, dependency, lack of educational aspiration and achievement, inability or unwillingness to control one's children, single parenthood and illegitimacy, criminal activity and drug and alcohol abuse.

For example, almost one-third of the nation's children are now born to single mothers, notes the Heritage Foundation in a new report, "America's Failed $5.4 Trillion War on Poverty." One child in every seven lives in a welfare home.

How to motivate the changes in behavior that would help reduce material poverty without doing real harm to dependent individuals is what Congress must decide in coming weeks. The problems involved in any proposals are enormous.

For example, tough-love plans to try to reduce unmarried teen pregnancy by refusing to give welfare checks to mothers under age 18 will primarily hurt their young children. Plans that require jobs and job training are usually more costly than basic welfare, at least for a few years. Mothers can't participate without child XTC care, there are few jobs available for people with limited skills and most of those that are available pay workers less than the package of welfare grants they now get.

Because it's so difficult to help people get off welfare, reform can do the most good if it concentrates on the problems that put them on the dole in the first place. In particular, that means reducing the number of parents who have babies out of wedlock, especially if they cannot support them.

To help reduce the government's dependency on its current welfare programs as a solution to poverty and recipients' dependency on handouts, the Heritage Foundation proposes a 12-step program.

Its recommendations call for capping welfare spending to force federal and state agencies to find ways to reduce welfare rolls. No more federal money would be used for cash payments to unmarried teen-age mothers but block grants to the states could be used for other ways to help young, single mothers.

Mothers would no longer receive an increase in AFDC payments or food stamps if they have more children (a policy already in effect in New Jersey). Mothers would be required to identify the father of their offspring to get AFDC benefits; fathers would be required to pay child support or perform community-service work. Tax and welfare penalties for marriage to a working man would be reduced.

Funds for education about sexual abstinence would be increased. Other efforts to encourage abstinence and prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancy would be made, perhaps including financial incentives.

Workfare requirements would be increased and enforced, under the Heritage Foundation proposals. Efforts would be made to keep costs low by concentrating first on fathers and single mothers who do not have children younger than age five. The limitations of job-training programs would be recognized, particularly in view of the low cognitive abilities of many welfare mothers.

Whenever appropriate, welfare would be converted into a loan instead of an entitlement with repayment expected, in hopes of reducing welfare dependency particularly as a result of divorce. And cuts in current welfare programs would be made to shift money to incentives that encourage constructive behavior, such the earned income tax credit.

No one knows whether this or any other package of spending cuts and incentive proposals would work. Congress will probably lack the determination to do more than tinker around the edges of welfare for fear of doing harm to real people with human faces and stories to tell the media.

But welfare as we know it costs far too much, hurts too many people it tries to help, demeans its beneficiaries and has too many unintended, adverse side effects. Congress must find a better way.

A5 Joan Beck is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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