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Welfare Surprises

Are welfare mothers promiscuous teenagers who have babies to get on the dole? Or are they down-on-their-luck women who need a temporary helping hand? Washington's fierce battle over welfare reform may turn on which view is more accurate. Now, the Census Bureau has weighed in with its first-ever study of recipients of Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)--and it turns out neither stereotype is entirely accurate.

The Census report, which is due to be released on Mar. 3, shows that unwed mothers under the age of 18, the prime targets of GOP reformers, make up a tiny slice of the welfare population. In the summer of 1993, when Census did its survey, only 32,000 of the 3.8 million AFDC mothers were 17 or under and unmarried. Their average age was 30, and 53% are--or had been--married. That suggests that the House GOP plan, denying benefits to unwed mothers until they turn 18, wouldn't save much money.

The new data support Democrats' claims that many AFDC recipients could reverse their fortunes with some help. A majority have a basic education: 38% have finished high school, and another 19% spent at least one year at college. Moreover, 15% of AFDC mothers are still pursuing education. AFDC recipient Alicia M. Straub, 24, will graduate this year from the University of Washington with a degree in sociology--even though she was abandoned by the father of her son, Devin, 2. "I see a big future in front of me," she says.

Still, the Census study offers ammunition for welfare hard-liners as well. AFDC recipients on average have more children than nonwelfare mothers--2.6 vs. 2.1. And those on the dole are twice as likely to have borne their first child as a teen--29% against 15%. Early childbearing poses a thorny problem for reformers, because other studies have shown that the younger a woman is when she gets on welfare, the more difficult it is for her to leave the rolls.

Will cutting off benefits prevent those early births? Republicans argue that welfare offers teens a cash incentive to become mothers. The Census report doesn't settle the question, but it offers an intriguing hint: Some states with the highest benefits, such as California, have the lowest birth rates for unwed teens, while House Speaker Newt Gingrich's Georgia--one of the stingiest states--has one of the highest pregnancy rates for such youngsters. Money apparently isn't the lure Newt thinks it is.

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