THE REPUBLICAN proposal to bring back orphanages sounds like a sick joke. But it's true: Republican legislation would not only set up state-run orphanages, it would create the orphans to fill them.

The Personal Responsibility Act, as the House Republicans call it, would take away the children of the poor - not just children of abusive parents, but poor children, plain and simple - and toss them into institutions.The Republicans' plan would cut off all government aid to single, teenage mothers; immigrants (even if they're in this country legally); and anyone who uses the welfare system for a lifetime total of more than a few years.

For the children of poor families who cannot get along once the aid is gone, the Republicans propose to build orphanages.

This welfare-reform proposal has been billed as a cost-saving measure, although, in fact, it costs a lot more to keep children in institutions than it does to provide AFDC and food stamps to their families. Time magazine calculates that keeping one child on welfare costs $2,644 a year, vs. $36,500 to keep the same child in an orphanage.

The orphanage revival movement rests on two false assumptions: that poor people are bad parents, and that, when it comes to raising children, government-sponsored institutions would do a better job.

The Republicans ignore the fact that it is possible to be both unemployed and a good mom. Even teenage mothers, whom the Personal Responsibility Act specifically targets, generally love their children. How important is love in a child's life? And love can't be replaced by bureaucracy.

"When you live in an institution, it's the loneliness that gets you," says Lyn Duff, a young writer for Pacific News Service's Youth Outlook magazine, who was bounced around to various group homes and hospitals as a child.

"When I lived in an institution, I used to hide in the bathroom and hug myself. I was 15, but I felt after a while like I was 4 because I really just wanted somebody to hold me and touch me."

Just a few years ago, Westerners were shocked to discover Romanian orphanages, established by a government that forbade birth control and abortion in an impoverished population.

Even though their physical needs had been seen to, the Romanian orphans were starved for human contact and love, and it showed. They exhibited classic symptoms of neglect, including poor language development and motor skills.

But the shock value of the orphanage idea seems to be, in itself, a reason many people support it. I attended a conference at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, at which Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts and conservative sociologist Charles Murray talked gleefully about "the O-word," and how it would horrify liberals.

The welfare debate has come full circle. The federal government created Aid to Dependent Children in order to keep widows and their children together in the 1930s. Social reformers then recognized that separating impoverished mothers from their children was cruel and wrong. Today, there is precious little public sympathy for poor families.

"They're lousy mothers," Charles Murray has said of single women on welfare. Stereotypes about lazy, abusive, drug-addicted welfare bums fuel demands for orphanages. Thus, Murray has long advocated canceling AFDC altogether and forcing poor women to "feel the pain" of having babies out of wedlock.

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This same line of reasoning led Jonathan Alter to call, in Newsweek, for a revival of shame. We need to judge, to castigate, and to look down upon unmarried women who have children, he argued.

A return to Puritanism is what Murray, Alter and the Republicans in Congress are calling for. The Puritans believed that wealth was a sign of morality and God's favor and that the poor were unworthy.

But in the modern world we ought to recognize that having money and having good values do not necessarily go hand in hand. People face economic hard times regardless of their virtue, and many poor women who love their children are struggling hard in the face of adversity. As a society, we can correct for economic injustice by feeding the hungry and relieving the suffering of children.

Or we can return to the dark days of the orphanage, the poorhouse and the Scarlet Letter. Let's hope a more generous spirit prevails.

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