Welfare: the new experiment

AS the long American welfare-reform effort finally comes to fruition - President Reagan is expected to sign the conference bill passed by Congress last week - it's important to remember that this is only a beginning. The welfare bill, like all legislation, was born of compromise and experiment. It may yet take more tinkering.

Quite a bit has changed in the half century that ``welfare'' as we know it has been in existence. Aid to Families with Dependent Children began as part of the Social Security Act, as a means of support for the widows and orphans of workers (who were assumed to be men). Such support was analogous to that received by the insurance beneficiaries of a deceased breadwinner.

The connection with paid and honorable labor was clear in both cases, but neither set of beneficiaries was necessarily expected to work.

But then AFDC came to be associated with families where the father was absent rather than dead, even as the full-time stay-at-home mom was becoming less and less typical of the middle classes.

The new welfare bill responds to these new circumstances by treating welfare mothers as not in a permanent state of dependency but as unemployed and in need of a job or some form of training or education to get one. This reflects the new perceptions of mothers as well as fathers as having breadwinning responsibilities. The bill also contains new provisions for enforcing child-support orders for absent fathers by payroll withholding.

Both these approaches will tend to treat the poor more like the middle classes, and that is a good thing. The values of work and family responsibility should be as available to the poor as to the middle class. The present system has too often forced choices between these values and food on the table.

But as noted above, all this is experimental. It's not clear that this bill fully appreciates the value of what a stay-at-home mother does, especially when she is the only parent. Many a welfare mother, especially in a poor community, stands alone between her children and a hostile outside world. (One of the advantages of enhanced child support is that it could make the difference between a mother's having to work full time and letting her work part time.)

Quite a bundle of different motivations seem to be pulling together on this one: resentment that some ``welfare moms'' can stay home with their kids while their middle-class counterparts have to go to work, along with a sincere desire to find some way to keep the welfare underclass from being washed overboard off the great ship of state.

But higher motives will get us further than punitive ones. The emphasis should not be on ``forced labor'' but on real economic empowerment of women on welfare, so that they can know the satisfaction of ``I saved for that; I earned that with my own money.'' And getting the fathers of welfare children, whose own lives often seem so barren, to contribute to their support should be accompanied by efforts to enhance their own life prospects.

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