Reversing Incentives to Dependency : Welfare payments must have a time limit, work must be a requirement rather than an option and family planning must replace out-of-wedlock births.
The Times has invited the two leading candidates in the hotly contested race for Congress in the 24th District, which includes the southwest San Fernando Valley, to write on several issues before the election.
Incumbent Democrat Anthony Beilenson has been a congressman since 1977. Republican Rich Sybert was state director of planning and research from 1991 to 1993.
For this article they were asked whether Congress should, in President Clinton’s phrase, “end welfare as we know it.”
Our welfare system is failing both the people it is supposed to help and the rest of us who pay for it. Radical change is needed, and, largely because of President Clinton’s long interest and leadership, Democrats and Republicans, liberals, moderates and conservatives all believe that we can agree on the difficult decisions that must be made to “end welfare as we know it.”
The system’s failures are widely known: It undercuts the incentive to work and isolates the poor from the economic and social mainstream. It fails to promote mainstream American values of work, family, individual responsibility and self-sufficiency. And, perhaps worst of all, it penalizes marriage and underwrites single parenthood.
The changes we make in the welfare system must ensure that work becomes a requirement for welfare recipients, not an option. Existing incentives to stay on welfare must be replaced with incentives to go to work.
Welfare must be limited so that it is a transitional program, not a permanent one. Time limits--most proposals suggest two years--would ensure that the obligation to work, not the right to income maintenance, became the underlying principle of our new welfare policy.
While the ultimate goal must be jobs in the private sector, government should be prepared to offer minimum-wage community-service jobs, but only as a last resort for those unable to obtain a private job and only for work that is needed.
As we work at getting people off welfare, it is even more important to keep them from entering the system in the first place. The No. 1 goal must be to stem the explosion of out-of-wedlock births to teen-age mothers. The rising birthrate among unwed mothers has been startling. The Census Bureau recently reported that those births rose more than 70% between 1983 and 1993. And in the past 30 years, we have witnessed an even more shocking social change: In 1960, 243,000 children in the United States lived with one parent who had never married. By last year that number had soared to 6.3 million.
Among the changes to our welfare system that should be adopted by Congress early next year are a number that make public benefits conditional on behavior:
* A requirement that welfare recipients postpone additional pregnancies until they are married and self-sufficient or, at the least, a limit on benefit increases when additional children are born to parents already on welfare.
* A requirement that minor parents live in a household with a responsible adult in order to receive benefits.
* A requirement that benefits be conditional on school attendance to ensure that young mothers graduate from high school.
So long as 400,000 children a year are born to girls with no high school diplomas, no husbands and few prospects, we will have the intractable problems of welfare dependency--and of crime and violence. Eighty percent of children born to these young women will live in poverty; meanwhile, benefits for families begun by teen-agers cost taxpayers $34 billion a year.
We must have a welfare system that persuades these girls not to become pregnant in the first place. We must make family-planning services more widely available, as well as preach abstinence and responsibility and make grants available to schools to institute teen pregnancy-prevention programs.
We must also go after absentee fathers for child support as the only effective way of making it unmistakably clear that we will insist on individual responsibility from young men as well as young women. For the first time, individual actions will result in consequences to the individual.
These new, and stricter, rules to encourage individual responsibility must be accompanied, if we are to be successful, by a renewed effort to enforce the best parts of our existing system.
Congress passed an excellent bipartisan welfare-reform bill in 1988 that required states to begin providing job-search assistance, training, education, transportation and child care--all recognized as necessary ingredients for getting welfare recipients into real jobs. But Congress funded only a fraction of the federal portion of the costs, although studies have indicated that the program has met with substantial success where it has been tried.
All of these steps are necessary, but I come back to my principal concern. We cannot continue to throw away billions of well-intended dollars on welfare payments that are not doing the beneficiaries any good and are also destructive to society as a whole. Requiring the use of contraception by welfare recipients would be, without question, the most constructive, cost-effective contribution we could make to ending welfare dependency and helping young people become self-sufficient.
We must send this serious and much-needed message to our young people. The harsh fact is that only if we get serious immediately about slowing the rising number of children born out of wedlock can we ever hope to end welfare as we know it.