Wisconsin Works to Make Welfare Work

YOUNG kids having kids is not good. Teenage pregnancy is a problem of an ever increasing dimension. That's why the Parental and Family Responsibility Initiative put forth by Gov. Tommy G. Thompson's administration in Wisconsin is receiving a lot of scrutiny.

Government has talked about welfare reform for decades; but an effort actually to move toward remedies catches attention.

How should government tilt appropriately in its policy development in family-related issues without crossing the line into ``social engineering''? That's the challenge.

The percentage of single teenage mothers has more than doubled in our state in the last 20 years. In Milwaukee County, 90 percent of all teen births are to unmarried women.

Kids should be encouraged to postpone parenting until they complete their educations, obtain training, and are in jobs where they can support themselves and their children.

Teenage pregnancies often result in low-birth-weight deliveries, exposure to both child abuse and neglect, school dropouts, emotional distress, one-parent families, as well as long-term welfare dependency.

The tab for government is high - more than $400 million a year in Wisconsin.

In addition, the rules currently in place for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) prohibit young couples who marry from retaining eligibility for AFDC if the father lacks a work history.

This can drive a significant wedge between unmarried couples - particularly in urban areas where young minority males often have very limited job opportunities open to them.

AFDC today also does little to foster a sense of responsibility among young fathers, who currently often neither marry the mothers of their children nor provide child support.

AFDC was established in the 1930s for widows and their children. The assumptions at the time provided that mothers would marry again, that AFDC would be a short-time bridge, and that mothers would not work.

These assumptions do not apply today. And a serious reexamination of the program is in order.

Governor Thompson's Parental and Family Responsibility Initiative says ``time out;'' let's test some alternatives.

First, let's consider dropping AFDC's current disincentive to marriage if the young couple decides it wants to walk down the aisle.

Second, let's expect more of young fathers - we must ask non-custodial dads who are not providing child support to get into work experience and job training so they can meet their financial obligations to their families later.

Third, let's provide parenting and human growth and development classes to young parents.

And finally, let's stop making the AFDC grant larger each time an additional child is added.

The pilot project for first-time teenage mothers - to be tested in four Wisconsin counties - would permit young couples to retain more earnings (up to $14,500 annually) while retaining AFDC eligibility. This will encourage recipients to move toward jobs with a future, routes off welfare.

The proposal would also require young single moms to live with their parents, if appropriate, rather than setting up additional households.

America's workplace is changing. Every year jobs are becoming more challenging; greater skills are needed.

The days of labor surplus are gone as we approach a period of significant labor shortage. We need every citizen equipped and ready for work.

There will be new opportunities for young people who finish school and bring skills and a willingness to work to the job market.

Modifying the AFDC program in a sensitive, yet no-nonsense, manner can be an important part of this equation.

No, it's not Big Brother and social engineering. It's about moms and dads and kids and their future long-term success.

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