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Another 'Boys Town' Fantasy

December 14, 1994

Speaker-designate Newt Gingrich urges First Lady Hillary Clinton to rent the video of "Boys Town," a heartwarming 1938 saga about a bucolic home for wayward boys and juvenile delinquents, to get an idea of what he means when he proposes orphanages to care for poor children whose parents lose their welfare benefits. If "Boys Town" is what Gingrich has in mind, he needs to start printing money.

The real Boys Town, near Omaha, Neb., is no longer a traditional orphanage. And it costs more than $40,000 a year to care for a troubled, neglected or abused teen-ager who is lucky enough to get into the famous facility. That's more than it costs annually on average to keep an inmate in a California state prison.

Boys Town is expensive because the boys--and girls--who are there do not live in crowded dormitories. They live in small group homes, with surrogate parents. The family setting teaches youngsters how to function in families. But the approach, which also provides intensive supervision and counseling, is extremely expensive.

The money is well-spent. Boys Town often works after other placements--including foster care--fail. But where will those dollars come from if millions of poor children require residential care because welfare reform cuts off their parents? Raising taxes is out of the question in the Republican-dominated Congress.

A welfare-reform bill proposed by the House Republicans in the "contract with America" would throw a lot of families off of the rolls and allow states to use the savings to establish orphanages. The savings gained from denying welfare would barely allow public facilities to provide gruel for the large number of children who would need care.

Welfare is relatively cheap. It costs about $2,500 a child per year. It also keeps children with their families. Loving, caring parents should not lose their children simply because they are poor, uneducated or unemployed. Poverty is not a crime.

Keeping families together is not always in the best interest of youngsters because of drug abuse, alcoholism, violence, neglect and other dangers. Nearly a half million children live in foster care, which costs twice as much as welfare. Substitute care is a bargain when it develops independent and disciplined adults. But bad foster parents and group homes turn out troubled adults who become homeless or resort to welfare.

Gingrich would let them depend on charities, which are already overburdened. In the best of times, charities cannot provide food, shelter and clothing for millions of poor children.

Government is obliged to provide for poor children. The current debate rages over the best way to help poor parents and their children without encouraging dependency or increasing the cost of public assistance. America's troubled and neglected children could use 1,000 Boys Towns. That's not going to happen, no matter what Newt Gingrich says or Hillary Clinton watches.

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