COLUMN LEFT/ BARBARA R. BERGMANN : A Safety Net for Children in Poverty : The Clinton team has the drive to push programs supplementing work efforts of single mothers.

Barbara R. Bergmann is a professor of economics at American University. She is working on a book comparing French and American policies toward children.

In his address on welfare reform to the nation’s governors this week, President Clinton said that most people now on welfare were “aching for the chance to move from dependence to dignity.” If Clinton is to help welfare mothers make that move in large numbers, he is going to have to go beyond forcing people now on welfare into jobs.

Dignity does require work, but it also means being able to live in decent circumstances. Most of the jobs available to welfare mothers don’t pay enough for that. More government help to working single mothers would also have to be provided.

The old liberal idea was that welfare benefits should be available without stigma and should be high enough to keep single parents and their children at a decent standard of living while the mothers stayed home. Clinton’s speech is the last nail in the coffin of that idea.

The old conservative idea was to force people to take jobs by cutting off their benefits. Clinton continues to endorse the idea that welfare recipients should have to take jobs after getting benefits for two years. However, his main thrust in dealing with the welfare problem will be to structure policy so that welfare mothers are motivated to get jobs voluntarily. That means giving working single mothers more help from government than they are now getting, thus making work more attractive.

As things now stand, welfare mothers have little incentive to take a job. For many of them, leaving welfare for work is more like a move from the frying pan to the fire than from dependence to dignity. A single mother on welfare and Medicaid who is thinking about taking a job faces the need to buy child care, which can eat up a quarter of her new paycheck. If, as is likely, she is eligible only for low-paying jobs without health benefits, taking a job will make her situation worse, not better.


More government help with child care would improve the motivation for single mothers to work. Hillary Clinton has been interested in the child-care programs developed in France, which has succeeded in keeping welfare dependence and child poverty far lower than here. There, the central government and local governments combine to provide free, high-quality nursery schools to all toilet-trained children and subsidized care to infants and toddlers of many working parents.

The Head Start program would be a good base for a much larger, much more inclusive program here. It would have to be made into an all-day, all-year program if it were to enable single parents to work, and children would have to be served throughout the period they needed care.

The Clinton Administration’s efforts to reform the health-care system is also important for the success of welfare reform. Women now feel that they have to stay on welfare because many of the jobs available to them don’t carry health benefits. If employers were required to give benefits, or if an alternative source of subsidized benefits were available for working single mothers, the incentive to stay on welfare would be reduced.

Another way to improve the situation of job-holding single mothers is to get them higher and more dependable child-support payments from the fathers of their children. Clinton will be examining the possibilities of implementing a program of child-support assurance, based on an idea developed by Irwin Garfinkel, a former University of Wisconsin colleague of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. Greater efforts would be made to identify and find every child’s father. Parents not living with their children would be assessed by formula according to their ability to pay.

Federalizing the administration of child-support collections would end the evasion by fathers who skip from one state to another to avoid state-based enforcement efforts. If the poverty or unemployment of the father made it impossible to collect some minimum amount, the government would supply that minimum.

Child-support payments are of little benefit to mothers who stay on welfare, because the government uses most of the money to reimburse itself for welfare expenses. But mothers who go off welfare and hold jobs get to keep the support payments as an addition to their wages.

The United States is currently spending more than $100 billion to support single mothers at home, in abject poverty. Clinton has the drive, the ideas and the advisers to redirect money into new programs that supplement the work efforts of single mothers. This is the only way that “dignity” can be assured for these women and their children.