The greatest moral imperative we face is replacing the welfare state with an opportunity society.
For every day that we allow the current conditions to continue, we are condemning the poor -- and particularly poor children -- to being deprived of their basic rights as Americans.
The welfare state reduces the poor from citizens to clients. It breaks up families, minimizes work incentives, blocks people from saving and acquiring property and overshadows dreams of a promised future with a present despair born of poverty, violence and hopelessness.
When a welfare mother in Wisconsin can be punished for sewing her daughter's clothing and saving on food stamps so she can set aside $3,000 for her daughter's education, you know there is something wrong.
When a woman who sells candy out of her apartment in a public-housing project cannot open a store because she would lose her subsidized rent and health care and end up paying in taxes and lost benefits all she earned in profit, you know there is something wrong.
Gary Franks, congressman from Connecticut, tells of going into grade schools and asking young children what they hope to be when they grow up.
Basketball players, football players and baseball players are the three answers, in that order.
What if you can't be an athlete? he then asks. They have no answer.
It is beyond the experience of these children to consider becoming a lawyer, an accountant or a businessman. The public-housing children, no matter what their ethnic backgrounds, have simply no conception of the world of everyday work.
Charlie Rangel, the senior congressman from Harlem, asked me to imagine what it would be like to visit a first- or second-grade classroom and realize that every fourth boy would be dead or in jail before he was 25 years old.
As I think of my three nephews, Charlie's comment drives home to me the despair and rage at the heart of any black leader as he looks at the lost future of a generation of poor children. Clearly something is wrong.
The defenders of the status quo should be ashamed of themselves. The current system has trapped and ruined a whole generation while claiming to be compassionate.
Welfare spending is now $305 billion a year. Since 1965 we have spent $5 trillion on welfare -- more than the cost of winning World War II.
Yet despite this massive effort, conditions in most poor communities have grown measurably worse.
Since 1970 the number of children living in poverty has increased by 40 percent. Since 1965 the juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes has tripled. Since 1960 the number of unmarried pregnant teen-age girls has nearly doubled and teen suicide has more than tripled.
As welfare spending increased since 1960, it has exactly paralleled the rise in births outside of marriage.
It is clear that the more we spend to alleviate poverty, the more we assure that the next generation will almost certainly grow up in poverty.
We owe it to all young Americans in every neighborhood to save them from a system that is depriving them of their God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
There can't be true liberty while they are trapped in a welfare bureaucracy.
There can't be any pursuit of happiness when they are not allowed to buy property or accumulate savings. And there can't be any reasonable right to a long life in an environment that is saturated with pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and violence.
Replacing the welfare state will not be an easy job. It will require undertaking eight major changes simultaneously. Trying to change only one or two at a time will leave people trapped in the old order.
Over the past few years a lot of truly caring, intelligent people have spent a lot of time thinking about the tragedy of modern welfare systems.
As a result, we now have a good idea of what works and what doesn't. The eight steps we need for improving opportunities for the poor are:
* Shifting from caretaking to caring.
* Fostering volunteerism and spiritual renewal.
* Reasserting the values of American civilization.
* Emphasizing family and work.
* Creating tax incentives for work, investment and entrepreneurship.
* Re-establishing savings and property ownership.
* Making learning the focus of education.
* Providing protection for children and adults against violence and drugs.
We have all seen society change for the better in recent years in its views on smoking, drunk driving and racism. There is no reason that views on acceptable standards of behavior for the poor cannot change as well.
Our culture should be sending over and over the message that young people should abstain from sexual intercourse until marriage, that work is a part of life and that any male who does not take care of his children is a bum and deserves no respect.
For a sense of the personal values we should be communicating to children, get the Boy Scout or Girl Scout handbook. Or go and look at Readers Digest and the Saturday Evening Post from around 1955.
Healthy societies send healthy signals to their children and to those who have become temporarily confused at any age. But look at the sick signals we are now sending through the entertainment industry and popular culture.
Is it any wonder our society is so confused if not downright degenerate?
None of our God-given rights matter much if we can be raped, mugged, robbed or killed. And the poorest neighborhood is as entitled to be safe as the richest. No economic incentives a government can devise will entice businesses to open factories in a neighborhood where employees are likely to be in constant physical danger.
Nor will any amount of education make up for a child being preyed upon by drug dealers. Addiction and prostitution will quickly wipe out the fruits of any educational reform.
The U.S. Constitution was written to protect us from enemies both foreign and domestic. We are doing a good job on foreign enemies, but a pathetic job of protecting ourselves and our children from those who behave like domestic enemies.
The poor today are trapped both in a bureaucratic maze and in a culture of poverty and violence.
Imagine a poor child who is failing to learn in a public monopoly, whose life is at risk when she walks to the store, who knows no one who goes to work regularly and who is likely to be pregnant at age 12 or 13.
Now imagine that this child is your daughter.
Newt Gingrich is speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. This article is adapted from his book "To Renew America," published by HarperCollins.