251. "Marrying Off Teens Won't Solve the Welfare Problem" Philadelphia Inquirer, Commentary (July 26, 1994), p. A11.


Just as the House GOP and the Clinton administration are finally moving toward putting welfare clients to work, something the conservatives have demanded for decades, the conservatives shifted the goal posts.

Now they argue that they way to get people off the dole is not through labor but by stopping illegitimacy. They rally around their new cultural hero, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, who calls for draconian measures to stop illegitimate births. He would take away children form single parents and give them, against their parents’ will, to adopting couples. Lacking those, the infants would be placed in orphanages.

Conservatives are right that it is not enough to get people off welfare through jobs, but we must ensure that as we drain the swamp it will not keep filling up. And the main new source of hard core welfare clients are teens with kids.

Stopping children from having children would largely stop the recurrence of welfare. Teens without infants to attend to are not only much more employable and able to fend on their own, they are also much more likely to complete high school, the second prerequisite needed to find work.

How to stop teens from having children? Not by getting them married! The misplaced emphasis on illegitimacy - as if it would be OK for teens to procreate like rabbits as long as they were married - misses the point:

Children should not have children, whatever their legal marital status.

They should be able to advance their education and training until they can earn their own keep before they have to care and pay for their kids. They must mature themselves before they can help their children grow and mature.

I recently asked Murray why he and other arch-conservatives avoid the subject of sex education and focus so exclusively on marital vows. He completely demurred. The answer, though, is obvious. Arch-conservatives’ views range from those who are willing to talk only about family values and not mention sex - after all, it’s still a dirty word to them - or limit themselves to arguments in favor of abstinence.

But they realize that once they step on this treadmill they must quickly face the question of whether to teach prevention to the very high proportion of teenagers (including numerous Catholics) who will not refrain from having sex.

Are they and we better off if teens are encouraged to use contraceptives as a fallback position? And if all fails, is the solution always teen marriage (for a pregnant 13 year old?); or is abortion something to be considered?

Teens should be discouraged from premature sex, but we need to adopt an “abstinence-plus” position that deals with what happens when all else fails. The rigid ideological position of Murray and company blinds them to the fact that exclusive focus on matrimony will not get us where we need to go, and pushes them to advocate extremely harsh measures - all to avoid offending some traditional proscriptions that even many religious authorities no longer uphold.

The best way to advance sex education is to rely on guided peer counseling. Adults preaching to teenagers have limited effects; peers, or those a year or two ahead of their target audience in school years, have a more effective voice. Their counseling, in turn, needs some guidance from professionals, but those costly types can each guide a score of teens.

Guidance is best done in new human resource centers that all schools ought to have. These centers should be on school premises but not an integral part of school bureaucracies to protect them from meddling and to take into account the objections of some taxpayers to their program.

Other ways can surely be developed as long as we accept that while marriage is the best relationship for most adults, which liberals should learn again to appreciate, it will not by itself deal with an overwhelming problem: children having children and the poverty, dependence on welfare and the other ills bred by children who procreate.

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