COLUMN ONE : Tough Love Comes to Politics : Laws are setting standards for personal behavior. Welfare recipients must stay in school or lose aid, and ‘deadbeat dads’ face a crackdown.


Pregnant at 15, Kinesha T. doesn’t need much imagination to envision the life that looms ahead of her. Her older sister, living with an aunt, is on welfare with her baby. Her cousin, at 21, already has six children, is contemplating a seventh, and seems sentenced to a life measured from welfare check to welfare check.

Wisconsin’s Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican in his second term, thinks he knows how to point Kinesha in a different direction. Under a state law he engineered, Kinesha will lose almost half her welfare benefits unless she returns to high school and attends classes regularly once her baby is 3 months old. The goal: to move her toward a diploma that will increase her chance of achieving self-sufficiency.

Thompson’s initiative to push Kinesha back into school--a program known as Learnfare--marks one frontier of a controversial new direction in social policy that could become a flash point in the 1992 presidential campaign. With increasing aggressiveness, states, cities and Washington are trying to craft programs that encourage people to do the right thing in their own lives--at least how government defines it.


This impulse is most visible in attempts to change the behavior of those receiving welfare--a trend that has steadily gathered momentum over the past decade. Under federal legislation passed in 1988, states are stiffening requirements on welfare recipients to undergo training and take jobs. Several states, led by Wisconsin, are looking at financial incentives aimed at encouraging welfare recipients to stay in school and get married, and discouraging them from bearing children when they are not married.

But the effort to devise government policies that encourage greater individual responsibility is now expanding well beyond the poor. Among the ideas gaining momentum:

--A dozen states now revoke the driver’s licenses of students who drop out of high school without good reason.

--In Arkansas, Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton has taken the concept another step by signing legislation that will revoke driver’s licenses for students who do not maintain at least a C average. Similarly, in Wisconsin, Thompson is preparing a proposal to bar students from after-school work unless they maintain good grades.

--Under prodding from the federal government, many states are cracking down on “deadbeat dads” by toughening child support collection laws. In Arkansas, absent parents who fall more than $1,000 behind in their child support payments now have their debts reported to commercial credit agencies.

--In Los Angeles, city officials using a state law that allows authorities to hold parents responsible for the gang activities of their children have required more than 700 families to undergo special counseling. Other cities hold parents responsible when their children violate curfew laws.


Some liberals view these new attempts to condition behavior--particularly when aimed at the poor--as thinly disguised racism. Wisconsin Democratic state Rep. Rebecca Young, who chairs a legislative committee on children, dismisses Thompson’s welfare reforms as an attempt “to take the decline of the middle class during the 1980s and focus the reason for that on those who are the poorest in our society.”

Both Parties Involved

Civil libertarians, meanwhile, worry that establishing the government as a parent of last resort intrudes on individual freedoms. Some on the right contend that government programs that expand individual responsibility is a contradiction in terms.

“People who are generally in favor of limited government should think twice before they say they are in favor of a program that is going to promote behavior that they like,” says conservative social policy analyst Charles Murray.

Despite such criticisms, the politics of personal responsibility is setting down roots in both parties, nourished by the belief that changes in moral standards have contributed to some of the nation’s most entrenched social problems, from gang violence to high drop-out rates.

These ideas are being raised to the national level in Clinton’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. In a predominantly liberal party, this stress on personal responsiblity carries considerable risk: Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, one of Clinton’s competitors, recently suggested that Clinton’s interest in welfare reform may have been inspired by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s tactic of vilifying welfare recipients in his unsuccessful Louisiana governor’s campaign.

But Clinton is firm. “What we have to do,” he maintains, “is say here is the opportunity agenda, here is what government owes you. But, also say, here is the personal responsibility agenda: here is what you owe to yourself, your government, your country.”


So far, the two most ambitious attempts to translate these sentiments into policy have come in Arkansas and Wisconsin under Clinton and Thompson--unlikely shipmates in turbulent waters. But Clinton, the moderate policy intellectual with a degree from Oxford University, and Thompson, the conservative grocer’s son with a meaty handshake, agree on a surprisingly large number of things--including the rueful conclusion that even the strongest incentives often fail to keep people on the straight and narrow.

Neither can claim that their initiatives have dramatically reversed the most worrisome social indicators in their states. But on some issues that inspire a strong social consensus--such as collaring absent parents to pay child support--both have marked measurable gains.

Tougher child support enforcement has paid off in both states: from 1985 through 1989, collections increased 129% in Arkansas and 169% in Wisconsin. Both states now rank among the national leaders in establishing paternity for unwed mothers and reducing their public assistance bill by recovering child support owed to families on welfare.

Key Elements

On the presidential campaign trail, Clinton has stressed two new enforcement ideas approved in Arkansas this year. One is the law requiring that unpaid child support debts be reported to credit agencies. The other is a shift in the legal presumption in paternity cases: now if a single woman names a father on the birth certificate, legally he must disprove the contention in order to avoid paternity, and the obligation for child support. When Clinton explained those initiatives during a campaign visit to New Hampshire last summer, a woman state legislator in the audience took her notes on the speech directly to the legislative drafting office.

Both Clinton and Thompson have launched their most ambitious effort to change behavior in education. And both have met much frustration in the classroom.

In Arkansas, Clinton’s initiatives to encourage school attendance have had only limited impact. In 1989, the state passed legislation authorizing substantial fines against parents whose children regularly skip school. In Little Rock, Municipal Judge William W. Watt, who helped write the law, has seen “parents knock kids down in the courtroom and say ‘You’re going to school; I’m not going to jail for you.’ ” But, elsewhere the law “has been spottily enforced,” acknowledges Democratic state Rep. Jodie Mahony, a principal sponsor.


Losing Licenses

Even more spotty has been application of the 2-year-old law requiring students to surrender their driver’s licenses when they drop out of school, unless they can demonstrate financial hardship. The state has tried to tighten up enforcement this year, and some teachers say students contemplating leaving school appear to be weighing whether they want to ditch their car along with their books.

But many teachers and administrators consider the law coercive, and have largely ignored it: Last year in Little Rock, for example, 535 students dropped out, and just 42 were reported to the state for withdrawal of their licenses. “There are a lot of people in the system who don’t believe in what we’re trying to do,” acknowledges Clinton.

Still, none of Clinton’s proposals have been nearly as controversial as Thompson’s Learnfare experiment. Riding a wave from his decisive victory over a Democratic incumbent in 1986, Thompson pushed Learnfare through the Democratic Legislature in 1987. It is a law with sharp teeth: Under the plan, a welfare family with a habitually truant teen-ager loses $77 a month--about 15% of its grant. Teen-age mothers on welfare must return to school or forfeit $200 a month--45% of their grant.

“If you don’t get a high school education what can you do in this society?” asks Thompson. “You’re going to end up on welfare, or flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s or selling drugs. So my idea is to try to use the stick (of cutting benefits), with the reward of the high school education to try and keep young men and women in school.”

More than three years after the law was fully implemented, it still stirs strong emotions--as was evident during a recent visit to Rosalie Manor, an 83-year-old nonprofit social service agency in Milwaukee that works with pregnant teen-agers and first-time parents. Kinesha T., who is living there while awaiting the birth of her baby in January, does not consider it unreasonable for the state to ask her to complete high school in return for her welfare check. “Why should you get paid for doing nothing?” she asks.

But Marty Kerrigan, the organization’s supervisor of community programs, flunks the plan for punishing only welfare recipients, and not middle-class parents whose children cut classes. And Lalisha Payne, a social worker who counsels first-time parents in the heavily black north side of Milwaukee, says the Learnfare sanctions unrealistically assume that parents can always control their teen-agers.


“A lot of times we try to solve problems when it is too late to do anything about it,” Payne says.

As with the driver’s license law in Arkansas, operational problems have somewhat dampened the ideological firefight over Learnfare. In July, 1990, a federal district judge shut down the program in Milwaukee County because the attendance records used to generate sanctions were riddled with errors; the judge lifted the order only after the state added elaborate new procedural safeguards.

But under the new system, the number of monthly penalties has dropped by two-thirds, to about 740 a month. That decline has come despite a rising dropout rate in Milwaukee, where half of all Wisconsin teens who are covered by Learnfare regulations live.

“That might suggest this program is having little, if any, impact,” says Lois Quinn, a senior researcher at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee’s Employment and Training Institute, which is completing a legislatively mandated study of the program. Preliminary results of the institute’s study suggest that perhaps less than 30% of the teens sanctioned are back in school two months later.

Still, to some who work with Milwaukee’s poor, those numbers represent hundreds of young people in classes who might otherwise be on the street. “It’s working, and I have to tell you, I did not want to do this, I went in kicking and screaming,” says June Martin Perry, who runs a Milwaukee social service agency that has counseled families sanctioned under Learnfare. “But it’s helped us help a lot of parents get their kids back into school or into the proper school.”

Plan Still Popular

Even Learnfare opponents concede that questions about the program’s effectiveness have not dented its standing with the public. Like many elements of the emerging personal responsibility agenda, officeholders in both parties say it enjoys strong support, particularly among middle-class voters.


That is not surprising. When Democratic pollster Mark Mellman surveyed Americans on family values in 1989, he found “the single most widely shared value in this country is that people ought to be responsible for their own actions.”

But, Mellman cautions, if pressed too far, these efforts could easily strike the public as heavy-handed meddling in private affairs.

In Wisconsin, for example, even some Learnfare proponents are uneasy with the follow-up Parental and Family Responsibility Initiative--dubbed “Bridefare” by critics--Thompson proposed earlier this year.

Under that plan, the state would provide teen-age welfare recipients with financial incentives to marry--and move to discourage women on welfare from bearing additional out-of-wedlock children by providing only half the usual benefit for a second child, and no money for any additional children.

These are disquieting ideas for many in Wisconsin. Some wonder if the state would be inviting child abuse or other problems by encouraging possibly mismatched teens to marry. To others, discouraging births among welfare recipients carries an odor of racial politics, sharpened by the fact that David Duke has long advocated the idea.

In Wisconsin, though, more whites than blacks receive welfare and Thompson denies any racial intent in his Bridefare initiative. Aides also point to the fact that a similar plan has been proposed by New Jersey state Assembly Majority Leader Wayne R. Bryant, a black Democrat. And though the Democrats hold a 17-seat advantage in the Wisconsin Assembly, Republican Thompson’s effort failed there earlier this year by just a single vote; Assembly Speaker Walter Kunicki says it is not clear that Democrats could beat back the program again.


In any case, Thompson is not waiting. Using his unusually expansive veto authority, he eliminated the Democratic language deleting his plan and is submitting a request to the federal government to implement it. “The Democrats are crazy,” Thompson says. “They should be joining me . . . I’m not beating up on people; I’m encouraging them.”

Some aspects of the personal responsibility agenda--such as Thompson’s Bridefare plan--are certain to perpetuate conflict between liberals and conservatives. But other elements may allow a new consensus for attacking domestic problems built on balancing opportunity with responsibility, argues Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank associated with centrist Democrats.

That search for a new social contract--in which government tries to expand opportunities and then holds individuals responsible for seizing them--is explicit in Clinton’s program. Clinton, for example, has argued that government should provide college loans to all who need them--and then allow the money to be repaid with a few years of national service as a teacher, police officer, or health care worker.

In the same spirit, the Arkansas law that will revoke driver’s licenses for students who fail to maintain a C average is balanced by another new state law guaranteeing college aid to students who keep their grades at B or above.

Though neither Thompson nor the Legislature has sought compromise in Wisconsin, their clashes over welfare reform have produced a somewhat similar balance. Thompson angered liberals by cutting welfare benefit levels in his first term. But requiring teen-age mothers to attend school has compelled him to put money back into the system for day care, transportation, counseling and alternative education. The state now spends more on these new services than it saves in Learnfare sanctions.

“Conservatives are more willing to put up the funds for these activities, if the bargain is negotiated” to include responsibilities, says David Long, a senior researcher with the Manpower Demonstration Research Corp., which studies welfare reforms.


‘New Covenant’

As he moves through the presidential race, Clinton is portraying these ideas as the basis for an even more fundamental renegotiation--a “new covenant” between government and the public.

“My experience as governor just brings me up against the limits of politics all the time, as we spend more and more money to fix broken lives that should have been kept whole,” he says. “I don’t think there is a program for every problem. You can have all the government initiatives in the world--and I think I know what needs to be done--but they have to operate within a receptive culture where everybody is willing to assume some responsibility for the future.”