The 1996 federal law that put an end to guaranteed welfare checks has been an overall success. It has hugely reduced the number of families on welfare, forcing adults to work.
In Wisconsin, home of the nation's boldest welfare reform, welfare rolls have been cut more than 90 percent.
But in human affairs, a gentle heart often needs to go along with stern rules. Politicians, like those in New York City or Wisconsin, may boast of their welfare-reform achievements as part of the political game. They need to remember, though, they are dealing with the lives of people who are often disadvantaged in education and health, both physical and mental.
The basic assumption is that welfare parents forced into jobs will acquire the work ethic, pass it on to their children, and end the phenomenon of the welfare lifestyle extending through generations.
That may be true in many, maybe most cases.
But as welfare rolls shrink toward the hard-core cases, governments will need to watch carefully that the reform does not do more harm than good, particularly for children.
A new National Bureau of Economic Research study finds that welfare mothers are more likely to neglect their children when their benefits are cut - as called for by the reforms when parents do not meet work or reporting requirements. Neglect, in this definition, is when a parent does not provide a child with necessary food, clothing, shelter, or health care - or doesn't send the child to school.
Poor families are more likely to maltreat their children, the study by economists Christina Paxson of Princeton University and Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University also finds. Unfortunately, many of those leaving welfare are getting jobs that pay so little they remain poor.
Further, children of working mothers with absent fathers are more likely to be subject to abuse and neglect. The number of children in that position sadly increases as welfare mothers are pushed into jobs.
Putting children into foster homes or orphanages is not necessarily the solution. It is expensive, like welfare.
So, as this welfare experiment continues, welfare officials and politicians should be sensitive to family needs, flexing the rules when appropriate.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society