WASHINGTON — THREE states are asking federal permission to make one hard-and-fast requirement of a poor mother before she receives welfare benefits:
The name of the father.
Welfare is typically a business of women and their children. But the current wave of welfare reform proposals at the state and federal level is aiming to pull fathers back into the equation.
The main direction reforms are pointing is toward more aggressive establishing of paternity, tougher pursuit of child support, and allowing mothers to keep more child-support money without losing welfare benefits.
A draft of the Clinton welfare plan, still not submitted as legislation, seeks to stop ``letting fathers off the hook'' by sending this different message: ``A boy who sees his brother required to pay 17 percent of his income for child support for 18 years may think twice about becoming a father.''
Mothers on welfare name the fathers of their children to state agencies only about a third of the time, according to Gordon Berlin of the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation in New York.
Social workers and others are convinced that these mothers know who the father is in at least 95 percent of the cases. In fact, fathers of poor, out-of-wedlock children usually show up at the hospital for the birth. But there is a clear but unfortunate logic to the reluctance of many mothers to name him.
Under the table
If a father pays child support through the official system, the mother and children receiving welfare benefits only get to keep the first $50 a month.
But if the father pays her unofficially, off the books, then she keeps whatever he gives her and her welfare benefits as well.
Federal law currently requires that a mother be asked to identify the father before receiving welfare benefits and that she answer - if only to say she doesn't know.
Maryland, Missouri, and South Carolina would like to require that paternity be established before any benefits are doled out. The Clinton administration wants to toughen up paternity requirements too, but not that tough. In a draft of its welfare plan, the White House puts the burden on states to establish paternity.
Currently, states have very mixed success. Texas and New York establish paternity in fewer than 10 percent of welfare cases. Michigan succeeds in more than two thirds of its cases, largely by investing more in investigating and pursuing paternity, says Columbia University social scientist Irwin Garfinkel. Michigan's investment more than pays for itself in added child support payments, Dr. Garfinkel adds, but such an investment typically takes about five years before it begins earning more than it costs. ``That's why more states don't do it,'' he says.
The Clinton administration also plans to use the Internal Revenue Service and a national computerized network to seize child support directly from the paychecks of fathers delinquent in supporting their children. Various states are proposing to seize the driver's licenses or occupational licenses of fathers in arrears on child support. Wisconsin has been testing since 1990 a ``pay or paint'' program that requires poor fathers who don't pay child support to do community service work.
Douglas Besharov, a resident scholar at the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, says these get-tough approaches are ``all wrong.''
``They really misunderstand the fact that there is a continuing relationship between these men and women, boys and girls.'' Besides, seizing wages from paychecks will fail to touch many poor men whose work is often off the books. Mr. Besharov suggests changing the incentives by allowing men to pay child support directly to women, without counting it against welfare benefits.
Garfinkel disputes Besharov's view that men often stay involved with the unwed mothers of their children and support them with underground contributions. Research shows that about a year after birth, he says, about half of unwed fathers lose regular contact with their children. Four years after birth, a much bigger proportion have drifted out of their children's lives.
Suzette Barkley, a social worker in Alexandria, Va., says that in the majority of cases she sees, ``the fathers are not in the picture.'' And most of the families do not even get the $50 a month in child support they are allowed to keep. ``The fathers don't have the money,'' she says.