NEW YORK'S DEMOCRATIC SENATOR, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, denounces the welfare reform bill as "the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction." The head of the National Urban League, Hugh Price, declares angrily that "Washington has decided to end the War on Poverty and begin a war on children." Contempt curling his lip, Brooklyn Representative Charles Rangel says, "My president will boldly throw one million into poverty." Marian Wright Edelman, chairman of the Children's Defense Fund, warns that if Bill Clinton signs this bill, it "will leave a moral blot on his presidency and our nation."
In the weekend papers, one columnist describes the new welfare reform law as "mandated starvation." Another quotes with approval a welfare lobbyist's prediction that Clinton "is going to fry in hell for this." In the Philadelphia Inquirer, cartoonist Tony Auth sketches "welfare kids" being sacrificed before the altar of "reelection."
People: Get a grip.
This isn't the end of the world. It isn't the end of welfare. It is barely the end of welfare-as-we-know-it. For all the keening and hysterics, the bill President Clinton has promised to sign will make only modest changes in the federal program of cash assistance to the poor. An unmarried woman who decides to have children she can't support will still collect free money from the government. She'll still get food stamps. She'll still be covered by Medicaid. She'll still be able to avoid work for up to two years -- even longer if she can't find day care. She'll still be able to shield the identity of her children's father(s) without forfeiting most of her benefits.
Welfare, all the screeching notwithstanding, isn't being dismantled. It isn't even being overhauled. It is being ever so slightly tightened: The new law limits lifetime welfare eligibility to five years, keeps noncitizens from going on the dole, and gives the states more autonomy in shaping their assistance programs. For this, Clinton should "fry in hell?" This is "the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction?"
What is hellish and brutal is the welfare state. It has lured millions of girls and women into ruining their lives by bribing them to have children before they have husbands. It has subsidized an explosion of illegitimacy, detaching fathers from their families, teaching them to be predators, not providers. It has peddled the narcotic of something for nothing, poisoned whole neighborhoods with a bias against work, and spread the delusion that the poor cannot -- indeed, must not -- help themselves.
This welfare reform bill, opponents cry, will generate social devastation and misery, especially among children. Have they looked out of their windows, seen what unreformed welfare is doing to children?
Over the past 3 1/2 decades, the percentage of American children on AFDC has rocketed from 3.5 percent to 13 percent. The great majority of black children -- more than 70 percent -- spend at least part of their childhood on welfare. The rate of births to unmarried teen-agers has tripled, from 15 per 1,000 in 1960 to 45 per 1,000 today. The growth of welfare has not ended child poverty, it has fueled it: In 1970, 10.4 million children lived in households with earnings below the poverty line. By 1993, the number was more than 15.7 million.
This catastrophe wasn't caused by war or plague or depression. It was caused by welfare as we came to know it -- by a well-intentioned, hideously misguided government policy of rewarding self-destructive behavior and paying good money for making bad choices.
When welfare was federalized in 1935, it was a modest program for helping widows with young children. Out-of-wedlock childbirth was rare then, deeply stigmatized and economically perilous. But in the 1960s, as welfare benefits were dramatically increased, the taboo against illegitimacy began to break down. Having a baby out of wedlock -- once a ticket to shame and misery -- became a ticket to monthly checks, rent subsidies, and food stamps. More and more women got hooked. More and more babies were born without fathers. And more and more families sank into the underclass.
Almost nothing is worse for a child than being raised by a single parent. Nearly 75 percent of children without fathers spend part of their childhood in poverty. They are more than twice as likely as children from two-parent families to be held back in school and more than four times as likely to be expelled or suspended. They are likelier to die in infancy. Likelier to need treatment for psychiatric problems. Likelier to be injured in an accident, to score poorly on IQ tests, to abuse drugs, to become criminals, to commit suicide. Above all, children born and raised out of wedlock are far more likely to get pregnant as teen-agers and have children out of wedlock themselves -- and thus to begin the cycle anew.
The welfare state hasn't cured poverty; it has incubated it. So long as the government keeps churning out those checks, children will keep growing up dependent and dysfunctional. Welfare as we know it breeds despair, crime, addiction, and abuse; it is slowly chewing the heart out of American society. This new law is one small step toward repairing the damage. Those inveighing so shrilly against it are defending a terrible status quo.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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