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American taxpayers pay $34 billion annually to provide welfare services to support teenage mothers and their children.

This staggering figure, released this week by the General Accounting Office, is further evidence of the need for true welfare reform. While the current system is by no means entirely to blame, it certainly includes few disincentives and even fewer ways of truly lifting poor young mothers and their children into productive lives.Fortunately, President Clinton decided recently to begin embracing the idea that government should discourage women from continuing to have children out of wedlock while on welfare rolls. His reform proposals are expected to include incentives for states to impose what are known as "family caps" for receiving welfare benefits. New Jersey, Georgia and Arkansas already have such programs. Added to his goal to remove people from welfare rolls within two years, this is an encouraging development.

Opponents view such plans as unfair on the grounds that they harm children in an effort to change the behavior of parents. But unless the government begins setting the tone for what is moral and responsible behavior, it will end up having to pay even more billions of dollars to sustain a rising generation that has little hope of climbing above poverty, despair and crime.

When it comes to reform that will have long-lasting effects, the government would be hard-pressed to find a better target than young mothers. Teenage mothers tend to have more children, less education and less money than other welfare recipients. They also have a great potential to influence the rising generation of at-risk youths.

But while welfare reform will help, it alone can't change the behavior of many poor youths. It may even seem confusing to them, considering many other aspects of society, especially television and the movies, portray sexual promiscuity as acceptable.

To truly solve the problem, a wide variety of institutions, including individual families, will have to embrace the idea that such actions are wrong.