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