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WELFARE SYSTEM A TOTAL MESS, BUT SOLUTIONS REMAIN ELUSIVE

QUESTION: Radical welfare reform has been approved by the House of Representatives and is awaiting a tough battle in the Senate. While the public clamored for welfare reform during the last election, recent polls show Americans do not approve of the Republican-sponsored plan. Why not?

BETSY HART: I'm not surprised some Americans are losing their appetite for welfare reform. The demagoguery of the left makes it seem as if most American children will soon be starving in the streets.Advocacy groups like the National Organization for Women and the Child Welfare League will now turn their nasty opposition campaigns on the Senate. They say welfare reform will destroy the lives of women and children.

But that claim presupposes that the current welfare system is good for women and children. It's been a disaster. During the "War on Poverty," America spent $5 trillion to eradicate poverty. But 30 years later as a result of welfare policies, illegitimate births, crime and the rate of absentee dads - all of which cause poverty and can truly destroy the lives of women and children - have skyrocketed.

Something is wrong. If all federal poverty program dollars were handed directly to the poor, every family of four below the poverty line would be given a check for $35,000 a year! That's not happening. So where are all those dollars going?

Crassly put, often to line the pockets of the social advocates and the barons of the poverty industry. That's the real reason they don't want to see the welfare gravy train come to a halt.

BONNIE ERBE: While my colleague is not surprised Americans are losing their appetite for welfare reform, I am not surprised Americans are losing their appetite for Republicans. Only the mean-spirited GOP could make the hapless Democrats look good by comparison. And polls (like them or not, Betsy) show that is exactly what is taking place.

Since launching his drive to pass the alleged "Contract With America" (actually a contract among right-wingers), Newt Gingrich has single-handedly taken his party from a 22-point advantage over Democrats on "handling economic problems" to a four-point spread. Americans were evenly divided a scant two months ago on whether Democratic spending or Republican budget-cutting poses a bigger threat to the country. Now 59 percent (compared to 34 percent) say GOP cuts are the bigger threat, according to an ABC-Washington Post poll.

Why this shift? Because the closer America looks at Newt & Company, the less it likes what it sees, and welfare reform is a perfect example. I, like most Americans, believe welfare is a largely (though not completely) failed program and would like to see it radically reformed. The problem is, we cannot believe the Republicans (mostly white men) have true concern for the poor.

Nobody should have a child he or she cannot afford to raise. Taxpayers should not have to subsidize other people's irresponsible decisions. But to break the cycle of poverty, something else must be offered in welfare's place. And Republicans, whose true desire is simply to punish the poor, have offered nothing.