Welfare Reform, the American Family, and Orphanages: What's Best for the Children?

By Peter, Val J. | USA TODAY, November 1995 | Go to article overview

Welfare Reform, the American Family, and Orphanages: What's Best for the Children?


Peter, Val J., USA TODAY


The debate about a "return to the orphanage" and welfare reform rightly has focused the nation's attention on the problems of today's families, both parents and children. So there it is, on the front burner of America's policy stove, and nearly every partisan in the debate has cooked up his or her own opinions, thoughts, and ideas about the matter. It is necessary to remember that there are a lot of ingredients in the recipe of welfare reform, orphanages, and the problems of the American family. The object is to attain the correct mix.

There are two things wrong with welfare: first, it isn't well; second, it isn't fair. Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, agree in this regard.

Originally, welfare was conceived as a way to help people get on the road to decent jobs and financial security. By and large, it has done neither. Increasing numbers of people are permanently dependent upon a growing public dole.

The welfare debate becomes confused when there is failure to distinguish this kind of economic dysfunctionality from behavioral or family dysfunctionality. While they are related, the latter is a far more important issue, touching every level of society. Some would have Americans believe that family dysfunctionality will be diminished greatly by redoing the welfare system. That is an illusion, mere wishful thinking.

Family dysfunctionality is behavioral dysfunctionality. It is not the same as dependence on the public dole. It is a different type of dependence--on drugs, alcohol, sexual promiscuity, lying, cheating, stealing, violence, abuse, suicide, divorce, etc. It afflicts the rich and poor alike. What the nation really needs is a public debate about the increasing number of families who are trapped in these kinds of behavioral dependencies.

When the kids at Boys Town were asked to describe some of their experiences, both good and bad, what they gave was an intimate look at the vast and terrible problems confronting American families today. Here is a sampling:

* "I was severely beaten by my drunken parents. I was three."

* "After my dad left, my 15-year-old brother and I were blamed. And when we said we loved Dad, it only made Mom angrier. I will never forget the shouting and yelling."

* "I remember when my dad was in the pen for dealing drugs, and my mother was drinking extremely heavily. Mom's boyfriend came over to the house drunk and beat her."

* "When I lived with my biological family, my mom met a man who was very abusive. He hurt my mom, breaking her jaw, and beat all of us."

* "I wasn't in school. I ran with a gang. I had no hope of family life."

There are hundreds more stories like these sitting on my desk, but these suffice to illustrate where America's primary focus should be--namely, on family reform. What can Washington do about this situation? First, it must make sure that whatever economic proposals for reform are put forward are judged on the basis of whether they promote family life instead of offering only an economic remedy.

Even if Washington solves the economic aspects of welfare with brilliant reforms, stories of family abuse will go on, unless the nation's leaders and all adults do something about their own personal lives. Even then, Washington needs to be very careful, because the political solutions of today often create the problems of tomorrow.

In the 1970s, social engineers such as Jerome Miller convinced politicians that out-of-home, long-term residential care for children was "intrinsically evil" and beyond redemption. They argued it was the nature of such places that abuse would occur and then would be covered up. Therefore, "orphanages" should be closed. They coined an elegant phrase for this--deinstitutionalization. It was the political solution of the day, sweeping the field of child welfare and helping create many of the difficulties the U.S. now faces.

Liberal politicians championed this ideology because it appealed to their sense of individual rights, emancipation, and freedom from institutional control.

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