WELFARE: Poverty and children -- new doubts about the system

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

``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.

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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.

But others say the problem cannot be resolved merely by allocating more money and introducing more government programs. ``The problem is not so much cash on the barrelhead. It's related to social structures that have nothing to do with economics,'' says Karl Zinsmeister, a research associate at the American Enterprise Institute.

To Mr. Zinsmeister, Americans' attitudes about sexual promiscuity, divorce, marriage and nonmarriage, family planning, and children are at the root of the problem. Family breakups, as well as failure to form families at all, can have dire effects on children growing up in those households, he says. It's these trends -- not spending cuts by the Reagan administration -- that underlie the higher levels of child poverty, Zinsmeister says, noting that poverty rates for children began to increase well before President Reagan came into office.

The increasing number of families headed solely by women is the most disturbing of these trends. In 1983, three out of four children in such households were poor. In particular, ``never-married mothers present the most severe child-poverty problem . . . and their ranks are growing,'' according to the Congressional Research Service report. Almost one-fifth of all births in 1980 were to unwed mothers. `Too ashamed' to stay in school

Yvette Burgos, welfare client turned secretary, was just such a mother. Pregnant at 15, she was ``too ashamed'' to continue school, so she dropped out in the ninth grade. And after the birth of her second child two years later, she went on welfare.

Her memories of being on welfare are so fresh that it's still difficult for her to talk about it. With eyes lowered, she remembers feeling ashamed, inadequate, and, most of all, deeply afraid that she would not ``fit in with people in the upper class,'' even if she made the effort.

But she seems to fit in beautifully at her new job with the Boston Fuel Consortium. Company administrator Susan Brace says the firm needed Yvette's secretarial skills, as well as her ability to speak Spanish. The company, wanting to attract Hispanic clients, had some of its brochures and leaflets translated into Spanish. ``But we held off distributing them until we had someone in the office who could talk with respondents on the phone,'' she says.

Poised and proud of her accomplishments, Ms. Burgos says she now feels free. She does not have to tell anybody what she does with her money. ``Staying home wasn't that bad, but the income was rough -- just enough to do the shopping and pay the bills,'' she says. ``Now maybe we'll be able to go to the movies or to McDonald's now and then.''

Burgos's achievements are all the more remarkable because she belonged to a group of women who are most likely to be long-term welfare clients. Young women who drop out of high school, become mothers in their teens, and have no work experience are at greatest risk of becoming utterly dependent on welfare, says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Programs miss those most in need

Still, it's ``essential that we do something to help these women,'' he says. Most welfare clients move on and off the rolls, and many programs simply help employable people find work. But such programs ``do not help those most in need. Young welfare mothers are the greatest risk, the most expensive to train, but they're also the biggest payoff [in terms of reducing welfare payments and improving the lot of poor children],'' Professor Sum says. ``Are we just going to let her collect [welfare benefi ts] forever because she's a high risk to serve?''

Much of the legislation pending in Congress -- such as child care, job training, and pregnancy-prevention programs -- is aimed at young mothers. Other legislation is designed to expand or create services -- such as nutrition, early-childhood education, and medical care -- for poor children.

Although the level of interest in children's issues and welfare reform is increasing on Capitol Hill, child-welfare advocates do not expect to see much coming out of Congress this year. One bill that may get through, however, would give states money to establish pregnancy-prevention programs targeted at teen-agers.

Preventing pregnancies among teens in the first place is the key to reversing child-poverty rates, reducing the number of abortions, and controlling the costs of welfare. But how best to do that is debatable.

The best approach might be through the schools, Sum suggests. His research, he says, indicates that girls age 16 to 20 who do poorly on basic-skills tests are more likely to become pregnant than girls who do well. These teens should know that, if they have babies before they are married, they are very likely to be poor for a long period of time, he says. Conversely, family-planning or pregnancy-prevention programs must point out that families with fathers are usually better off in every way than familie s without fathers. For teen-agers who do become pregnant, however, it is imperative that they graduate from high school, he adds.

AEI's Zinsmeister agrees that lessons on economic reality may help take the glow off a teen's romantic vision of single motherhood. But ``government can't muscle in on people over their intimate, personal decisions,'' he says. It's primarily the role of churches and community organizations to address the public's moral and spiritual needs, he adds. A controversial and drastic solution

But another viewpoint, put forward by economist Charles Murray in his controversial book, ``Losing Ground,'' would end all welfare for able-bodied, working-age people. With no welfare to cushion them, young women who cannot support a family would give up their children for adoption (or have abortions). The end result, he argues, would be a dramatic reduction in the teen-age pregnancy rate.

Mr. Murray's conviction that welfare deepens dependency is shared by President Reagan and many conservatives. Although the White House is reportedly forming a work group on welfare reform, the action Murray seeks is considered politically impossible.

To Yvette Burgos, a reduction or cutoff in benefits would not have the intended effect. ``If they lower AFDC, a lot of kids will face being hungry,'' she says. Programs like Massachusetts' ET are the best hope for getting off welfare, she says.

``People are always complaining that they want us off welfare, but they aren't willing to give us a chance. If people in companies would hire us, and give us a chance to develop our skills, a lot more of us would be off welfare,'' she says. CHARTS: Poverty in the US National rate 1959 22.4 1969 12.1 '70 12.6 '71 12.5 '72 11.9 '73 11.1 '74 11.2 '75 12.3 '76 11.8 '77 11.6 '78 11.4 '79 11.7 '80 13.0 '81 14.0 '82 15.0 '83 15.3 '84 14.4 Children under 18 1959 26.9 1969 13.8 '70 14.9 '71 15.1 '72 14.9 '73 14.2 '74 15.1 '75 16.8 '76 15.8 '77 16.0 '78 15.7 '79 16.0 '80 17.9 '81 19.5 '82 21.3 '83 21.8 '84 21.0 Adults 65 years or older 1959 35.2 1969 25.3 '70 24.5 '71 21.6 '72 18.6 '73 16.3 '74 14.6 '75 15.3 '76 15.0 '77 14.1 '78 14.0 '79 15.2 '80 15.7 '81 15.3 '82 14.6 '83 14.2 '84 12.4 Source: US Census Bureau America's Poor People (33.7 million, or 14.4 percent of the population) FAMILY BREAKDOWN

78.5% percent of all poor live in families

19.6% are unrelated individuals

1.9% live in unrelated subfamilies (say, a couple subleases the second floor ----- of their house to another family) 100.0% Of all poor Americans, 35.1% live in families headed by women Of all poor Americans, 43.3% live in other types of families

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78.5% = poor people who live in families CHILDREN 39.4% of all poor people are children 20.1% of these children live in families headed by women 18.3% of these children live in other types of families

1.0% of these children live in unrelated subfamilies Source: US Census

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