TEEN PREGNANCIES AT CENTER OF WELFARE DEBATE YOUNG MOTHERS HERE SCOFF AT GOP PLAN Series: THE CONTRACT AND YOU Second of an Occasional Series

Article excerpt

FIVE TEEN-AGE welfare mothers are in the middle of a raucous game of hearts when the conversation turns to politics.

The subject: the Republican Party's proposal to deny welfare benefits to the children of young teens.

The reaction: outrage.

Letitia, who gave birth at 16, scoffs at the notion that teens will stop having babies if they can't get welfare. "That's a laugh," she says. "Young people have urges. They're going to have sex whether there's welfare or not."

Kelly, also a mother by 16, says she deserves every penny in her $234-a-month welfare check. "I work hard for my check," she says. "I get up at 5 o'clock every morning so I can get to school. They ought to be paying me more - and giving me an apartment for myself and my baby, too."

It's attitudes like this - the seeming denial of responsibility and sense of entitlement - that are driving the Republican Party's "Personal Responsibility Act," nwhich would deny cash welfare for babies born in the future to unmarried girls under 18.

The bill also would allow states to deny checks to new children born to mothers under age 21. States could use the savings to prevent pregnancy, encourage adoption, finance orphanages or subsidize group homes for teen mothers and their children.

Because it would end welfare's 60-year-old status as an "entitlement" - a benefit to which anyone poor enough is entitled - the Personal Responsibility Act is one of the most controversial parts of the Republican Contract with America.

Party theorists don't blame teen-age girls for thinking the way they do. Their attitudes, they say, are the inevitable result of a welfare system that rewards irresponsible behavior with a monthly check, a book of food stamps and free health care.

"The federal government should never have been in the business of telling a 17-year-old girl that we'll send her a check if she has a baby out of wedlock," says Robert Rector, welfare policy analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation. "We basically have a system that subsidizes out-of-wedlock births."

But some social scientists say the Republican plan is based on simplistic assumptions about the causes of teen pregnancy.

"Welfare may be on the list of explanations," says social psychologist Kristin A. Moore, "but it is quite a ways down on the list. The fact is that most teen-agers do not want to become parents for any reason."

Behind the Republican proposal are some sobering facts:

- Teen sexual activity is up. In the '50s, only 27 percent of 18-year-old women were sexually experienced. Today 60 percent are.

- Teen pregnancies are up. In the '70s, 9 percent of teens got pregnant each year. Today, 12 percent do. That's a million teen pregnancies a year, resulting in 500,000 babies.

- The out-of-wedlock birth rate for teens has grown astronomically. In the '60s, only 33 percent of teen mothers gave birth outside of marriage. Today, the rate is 81 percent.

One reason for these trends is changing cultural values. The message that many teens get from the media, their peers and welfare policy is that it's acceptable to have a baby - even if you're not old enough to drive.

Remember the '50s, when only the nmost risque television shows allowed married couples to even kiss on the cheek? Today, TV stars disrobe and couple openly on popular shows such as "NYPD" and "Melrose Place."

In the '50s, getting pregnant out of wedlock was about the worst thing that could happen to a girl. Most who did were either forced into quickie marriages or sent under assumed names to special maternity homes.

Today, at Vashon and a half-dozen other area high schools, teen mothers bring their children to a cheerful day-care center at school. There's such a big demand at Vashon that the waiting list is 78 names long.

***** The Myths

There's a consensus that too many teens become mothers while they're still wearing braces on their teeth. …