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

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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.

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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