Like few other issues, welfare hits a nerve with Americans. With real wages still below their level of a decade ago, taxpayers have little desire to support the nonworking poor.
No wonder politicians are lining up to see who can be the most tough-minded. In their Contract With America, House Republicans vowed to deny benefits to unwed mothers under 18, with the savings being used for adoption, orphanages, or homes for unwed mothers. And to save money--$40 billion over five years is the claim--House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his supporters would tighten eligibility, limit benefits to immigrants, and slash spending on food stamps and other programs by as much as 5%. Trying hard not to be outdone, President Bill Clinton is rethinking the welfare-reform plan he unveiled last June, which would have set a two-year limit on Aid to Families With Dependent Children and curbed benefits to new welfare mothers who refuse to establish paternity.
The current welfare system needs an overhaul. But as Clinton and the GOP get tough with welfare, something very important is getting lost: the fate of the poorest children. The latest attempts at welfare reform are more likely to hurt children than help them. For example, denying welfare benefits to children without a legally recognized father would knock an estimated 2.8 million children off the rolls and into the streets, with disastrous long-term results. Similarly, curbs on food stamps may save money in the short run, but at the cost of more hungry and malnourished children.
That's why any attempt to fix welfare must focus on giving the children on welfare today the skills and health they need to be independent tomorrow. Educational-assistance programs such as Head Start should be strengthened. So should pre-natal care. Perhaps families that take their children for regular health checkups, make sure their children attend school, and perform other acts that greatly improve their children's well-being should remain eligible for payments. A system structured to help welfare families focus on their kids is the best way to ensure that the welfare problem gets smaller, not larger.