SANTA BARBARA — President Reagan, in his strongest language on the subject to date, on Saturday denounced the nation's welfare system as "misguided" and said that it has made the problem of poverty worse instead of better.
"We're in danger of creating a permanent culture of poverty as inescapable as any chain or bond; a second and separate America, an America of lost dreams and stunted lives," Reagan warned in his weekly radio address from his rain-soaked mountaintop ranch, before ending his vacation and leaving for Washington.
"The irony is that misguided welfare programs instituted in the name of compassion have actually helped turn a shrinking problem into a national tragedy."
Cites 'War on Poverty'
Reagan did not cite precise statistics to support his argument. He said poverty in America was in decline from the 1950s until 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a "War on Poverty" as part of his Great Society legislative agenda.
"Poverty, as measured by dependency, stopped shrinking and then actually began to grow worse," Reagan said. "I guess you could say, poverty won the war."
In blunt language reminiscent of his earlier campaigns for public office, Reagan assailed the phenomenon "of child mothers and absentee fathers" that has become increasingly commonplace among the poor.
He said that the number of babies born out of wedlock to teen-age mothers had more than doubled since 1960.
Declaring it is "time to reshape" the system, Reagan renewed his call for welfare reform, which he made earlier this month in his State of the Union address.
The President said he had directed Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III to convene a working group to "evaluate the effect of a wide range of government programs on American families, especially poor families." Another group is examining the impact of all federal, low-income assistance programs. Their reports are due Dec. 1.
Rain Closes Road
The heavy rain that marred the President's brief vacation closed the road to his Santa Ynez Mountain ranch for several hours, and Mrs. Reagan reportedly had to stuff towels under a door to keep water out of the ranch house. On the President's trip down the mountain, the wet and twisting road was strewn with rocks, and at a number of swollen streams, water sometimes reached to the hubcaps of the President's four-wheel-drive van.
In Washington, delivering the Democratic radio response to Reagan's speech, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) placed the blame for poverty not on welfare, but on the unfair competition of imported commodities. "The key to escape the welfare system is jobs," he said.
White House officials regarded Reagan's Saturday radio address as the start of a campaign to build public support for welfare reform legislation, which he is expected to seek next year.
The issue of welfare reform is a sensitive one that has usually divided along party lines, with Republicans favoring stricter rules and Democrats defending the current system.
The White House believes that is changing and that partisan lines are blurring in the face of what Reagan called "a gathering crisis in our society."
Welfare programs currently cost $110 billion a year. A White House official briefing reporters earlier this month said it would cost only $60 billion to bring every American just above the poverty level. "We want to know where the missing $50 billion is going," he said.
While Reagan has long been critical of the cost-effectiveness of welfare programs, he said in his speech that "the waste of money pales before the sinful waste of human potential." He said a single mother on public assistance in one of the higher-paying states can receive more than the net income of a minimum wage job. "In other words, it can pay for her to quit work," the President said.
He also said that under current law, the federal government will set up a pregnant teen-ager in her own apartment, provide medical care, food and clothes as long as she does not marry or identify the father of her child.
"Fathers are often nowhere to be found," Reagan said, a situation that he said undermines the family as "the most basic support system there is." He said that the crisis, if unchecked, will leave "a permanent scar" on the American dream.
"In some instances you have to go back three generations before you can find an intact family," Reagan said. "It seems even the memory of families is in danger of becoming extinct."