Now that Congress and President Bill Clinton have opted to use the threat of utter destitution to dissuade poor teen-agers and women from having children on the public dole, it's time to revive a far more humane, and perhaps more effective, proposal with the same objective.
This idea surfaced briefly and spectacularly in 1990, when the Philadelphia Inquirer suggested in an editorial that perhaps some welfare mothers should be "offered an increased benefit" if they would agree to produce effective birth control-specifically, to use the then new Norplant contraceptive, which prevents pregnancy for five years after being implanted under the skin of the upper arm.
An uproar followed. The editorial writers-who had insensitively suggested a desire to reduce births of poor black babies in particular-were savaged by many Inquirer staffers and others as racist advocates of eugenics, even of "genocide." They also caught it from some abortion rights zealots-who bridle at any suggestion that the government should seek to influence anybody's reproductive choices by means more potent than education and contraceptive giveaways-and from conservatives- who think the only proper way to discourage teen pregnancy is to preach abstinence.
Amid national publicity, the newspaper abjectly apologized 11 days later for having printed a "misguided and wrongheaded editorial opinion."
And ever since, the whole subject has been taboo, at least in the mainstream press. Although some slate and local officials, including former Gov. William Donald Schaefer of Maryland, have proposed various Norplant incentives, few if any on the national scene have dared mention the words welfare and Norplant in the same sentence at least in combination with incentive.
But it was a good idea then, and it's a good idea now, at least in the view of some smart, compassionate experts on poverty and welfare, who dare not say so publicly lest they be attacked by the thought police. It would be good for poor women-whose chances of escaping poverty, are often doomed by teenage motherhood-and good for the rest of us.
The crux of the poverty crisis that blights our society is the fact that millions of babies are being born to poor teen-agers so lacking in elementary skills, work habits, and self-discipline that they are unlikely to be either responsible parents or self-supporting providers. Many of these babies grow up in squalor and themselves become dependent denizens of the welfare culture; many became criminals. And so on, generation after generation
It's getting worse. The percentage of children born out of wedlock registered its largest recorded one-year increase ever in 1994, from 31.0 percent the previous year to a staggering 32.6 percent, according to data released in June by the National Center for Health Statistics. Out-of-wedlock births rose among both whites (to more than 25 percent) and blacks (to more than 70 percent). Not all these children will be poor, of course. But many will.
The only realistic hope for braking the bleak cycle of teen pregnancy and welfare dependency is to find ways t persuade poor teen-agers not to have babies-at least, not until they are old enough, and capable enough, and self-supporting enough to provide a decent home life. But nobody- nobody-has any great ideas for realizing this hope, short of reverting to the cruelest, let-'em-starve brand of social Darwinism.
Liberals have long been bereft of ideas for confronting the problem. Understandably reluctant to make poor women and children even poorer, they have been in a state of denial of the massive evidence that-as President Franklin Roosevelt warned in 1935-"continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration."
While liberals have promoted worthy efforts to make contraception and education about family planning widely available, such efforts have not made much of a dent in the problem. Many poor teen-agers want babies-or at least aren't strongly motivated lo avoid pregnancy-and many of those who don't want babies aren't diligent about using contraceptives, like the pill, even when freely available.
And now, after fighting to preserve welfare as we know it, liberals have suffered a far greater loss-the demise of the 60-year-old federal entitlement to welfare-than they might have suffered had they supported "workfare" and other, more modest reforms, including Norplant incentives.
Thoughtful progressives like Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y), who long ago recognized the bankruptcy of the liberal approach, have properly stressed the need to push welfare mothers into jobs and job-training programs. This makes sense because some of them will rise to the occasion, learn the work ethic, and become at least partly self-supporting. And others may be dissuaded from having children by the prospect of being required to do what other citizens do-spend their days working outside the home in order to earn their checks.
But the hard truth is that (as Moynihan acknowledges) a very large percentage of welfare mothers and would-be welfare mothers are so crippled by their own early childhood environments as to be essentially unemployable, no matter how well-financed and well-ran may be the jobs programs, and the related counseling, training, and childcare programs, and the schools.
And under the harsh new Republican-sponsored legislation signed this month by President Clinton, the jobs programs will not be well-financed It appears that millions of welfare mothers and children will simply be cut off-unable to get or hold jobs, and left to beg from relatives and strangers, to steal what they can even to sleep on the streets and on grates, depending on how-much Calcutta-style misery...