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

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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.

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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.