WELFARE: Poverty and children -- new doubts about the system
FOR Yvette Burgos of Boston welfare made it possible to feed and clothe her children -- but just barely. It was hard to scrape by on $378 a month, she says. And if her allotment of food stamps ran out, ``we'd eat Cheerios for three or four days'' until the next month's stamps arrived. Her struggle to stand on her own began in earnest when she read about a state job-training program for welfare clients. After signing up and undergoing 34 weeks of secretarial training, Ms. Burgos was hired by a local company at a salary of $900 a month. Getting that first paycheck ``really made me feel good,'' she says. For the first time, she sent her children back to school this fall with notebooks, pencils, erasers, and binders tucked under their arms.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
``They can have things they couldn't have before,'' she says, smiling at the thought.
For Burgos, the welfare system provided relief while she struggled to get on her feet. And it's not surprising that she is an avid fan of Massachusetts' employment-training program, irresistibly called ET.
But public opinion about welfare, and support services like job training, is less enthusiastic. Many Americans doubt these programs have any lasting impact. Others suggest that welfare saps a person's incentive to work.
Indeed, a recent survey by the Los Angeles Times showed that 43 percent of poor people themselves say welfare benefits make them more dependent. More surprising, a whopping 64 percent of the poor surveyed say poor young women often have babies to get welfare, and 60 percent say welfare encourages fathers to leave home so their families can collect benefits. A number of unintended effects
Welfare advocates concede that the system has probably had a number of unintended effects. But they say there is no way to determine how much of the increase in teen-age pregnancy, for instance, can be attributed to welfare and how much is the result of sweeping social changes like the so-called ``sexual revolution.''
If the welfare system leaves the public ambivalent, angry, or confused, it's no wonder. The goal of welfare is ``very cloudy,'' notes Barbara Blum, president of Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation . ``Is it to provide shelter and nutrition to children? Is it keeping people off the rolls? Is it preparing poor women for jobs?'' she asks.
Now, after years on the back burner, welfare is once again becoming a hot issue in Washington. And much of the discussion is being fueled by recent reports that more and more of America's poor are children.
In 1983, 22 of every 100 children lived in poverty. By contrast, when child poverty was at a record low in 1969, only 14 of every 100 children were living below the federal government's official poverty level, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service.
The problem has reached ``crisis proportions,'' says Gordon Raley of the Child Welfare League. ``We are the only industrialized nation in the world where the poverty rate for children is actually rising.''
``If we continue to bring up children who don't get a decent education, who aren't very well fed, we're going to have another generation of the same problem,'' Mr. Raley adds. ``As a country we pay for it, eventually.''
Raley and many other child-welfare specialists lay the blame at the doorstep of the White House, citing cuts in programs for the poor during the first years of the Reagan administration. Since then, Congress has started to restore some of the funding, but many say more needs to be done to help the poor and their children.
``Political support for mindlessly cutting social programs has been stemmed, on a bipartisan effort, in Congress,'' says Rep. George Miller (D) of California, sponsor of an omnibus ``children's survival bill'' in the House. ``Should we decide to break the welfare cycle, we could do it in a relatively short period of time. But it would take a lot of money, and many here aren't willing to spend it,'' he says.