Finding the Way To `Fix' Welfare Is Not So Simple

Being good social engineers is a challenge for both the Republicans and the Democrats

IDEALLY, young teens should not have babies. Babies should be born into a nurturing, two-parent household. Able-bodied people - except, perhaps, those with preschoolers at home - should work. And fathers, even single ones, should play a central role in the lives of their children.

On the whole, Americans agree with these sentiments.

And, as politicians eager to please, Congress and the president are responding to the national sense of crisis that surrounds these issues.

But so far, the picture that has emerged on welfare reform is one of political groping.

Republicans in Congress have declared that turning welfare programs over to the states is the best way to go.

But then they spent days working out the details on restrictions and prescriptions for the states to follow - much to the chagrin of some Republican governors.

For several hours last week, for example, members of the House Ways and Means Committee worked out - then reworked the next day - a formula to reward states for lowering out-of-wedlock birth rates.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats have struggled to reach any consensus at all on welfare policy.

Undergirding the whole debate, though, is a nagging sense that government can affect human behavior, particularly the most intimate of decisions, only on the margins.

Even if states took away all aid to teenage mothers and their children, no one thinks teenagers would stop having babies over night, though some argue they would over time.

``The one thing that governments don't know how to do is change attitudes and behavior,'' says welfare specialist Frances Fox Piven, a professor of political science at City University of New York. ``They usually don't take into account the monumentally complicated forces shaping attitudes and behavior in the first place.''

``If there was a magical solution, we would have heard about it by now,'' says John Truscott, press secretary to Michigan Gov. John Engler (R), a leading advocate of state-based welfare reform.

Michigan's welfare reform efforts are based more on incentives than on punishment, says Mr. Truscott. In Michigan, if a minor has a baby, she has to live at home, except in cases of abuse, and she still gets cash assistance. Under the Republicans' proposed law in the US House, unwed mothers under age 18 would get no government cash.

``We are concerned about the babies'' in those cases, says Truscott, ``because the states will be responsible.''

BUT here on Capitol Hill, even the architects of the tougher approach to teenage pregnancy aren't satisfied with what's emerging from Congress. The GOP's Contract With America called for a lifetime ban on cash aid to girls under age 18 who give birth out of wedlock. In the House Ways and Means Committee, that has been softened to ban cash grants only until a teenage mother reaches age 18.

``Ways and Means has weakened it to the point of being just a message,'' says Rep. Jim Talent (R) of Missouri, who co-wrote the welfare reform component of the Contract With America.

Congressman Talent says that only 4 percent of the welfare caseload involves unwed mothers under 18. If the stronger provision had been left intact, he says, ``we would have seen a decline in out-of-wedlock births.''

He also predicts that, under the tougher law, more young parents would consider giving up their babies for adoption, ``where their expectancies for success in life would go up.''

What the government can't do, Talent acknowledges, is restore the societal stigma once attached to out-of-wedlock pregnancy. But, the congressman says, government can rethink the web of welfare provisions and tax structures that discourage marriage and work. ``Eligibility for health care shouldn't be linked to having been on welfare,'' he says.

One constituency that has entered the arena with its own message on welfare reform - and the limits on what government can ultimately accomplish - is fathers.

Even as Congress works up legislation to enhance efforts at collecting delinquent child-support payments, a coalescing network of fathers-rights advocates is asserting that cash is not the most important role a father should play in the lives of his children.

``The one thing that places children at risk is when they are being reared without the active involvement of fathers,'' said Wade Horn, director of the National Fatherhood Initiative and an ex-member of the National Commission on Children, at a symposium this week.

Government can't mandate a desire on the part of fathers to spend time with their kids and tuck them in at night. But, said members of fatherhood groups that met on Capitol Hill, government can expand its focus on job training for welfare mothers to include more low-income fathers, who also need a boost to their self-esteem and life prospects.

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