White Ghetto?

GERALDINE ANDERSON IS PROUD that she has never been on welfare. A native of Baltimore, she got pregnant at 15, and her mother forced her to give the baby up for adoption. She raised her subsequent children -- Kathy, Jimmy, Kelly, Kim, Diane, Angie and Robert -- with a succession of three husbands. The family put cardboard in their shoes to make them last longer, and one time, when her husband suddenly quit his job and disappeared, they ate nothing but potatoes for a week. As soon as the youngest was 3 years old, Anderson started working; for a short period she even worked two full-time jobs, sleeping only a few hours a night. By 6 a.m. she was up and had breakfast ready. ""We always sat around the ta-ble, everybody together,'' Anderson remembers. ""They learned their table manners, too.'' Anderson, now 52, holds down a secretarial job with a law firm in Wilmington, Dela., and dreams of starting a business making fake-fur coats.

Somehow her children have not embraced the same values of work and thrift. Kathy, Kelly, Kim and Angie are all on welfare. (Diane recently became a beautician and got off the dole. One son is a mechanic, and the other lays carpet and tile.) All the daughters, ranging in age from 26 to 34, have children now -- 14 altogether -- and they're all single mothers, either divorced or separated or never married to the fathers. ""I tell 'em to forget about the welfare,'' says Anderson. ""I tell 'em to stop having babies without being married.'' Her daughters say they intend to do just that, but they seem to find welfare more compelling than their mother's warnings. Angie says that if there were no Aid to Families with Dependent Children, ""I never would have had her,'' pointing at her second child. Kim was going to abort her second pregnancy, but when she discovered she was carrying twins, ""I just didn't have the heart.'' Still, she says that if welfare weren't an option, she might not have had even her first child.

The contrast between Anderson's dogged work ethic and her daughters' unabashed dependence on AFDC reflects a growing trend in poor white America. Until recently, ""the underclass'' was a term used mostly to refer to a pattern among poor blacks (pregnant as teenagers, dependent on welfare) that repeated itself over generations. Nearly 30 years ago, Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned of the horrific social consequences of the skyrocketing out-of-wedlock birthrate among blacks. The rate then was about one in four. That's roughly where whites are today -- up from 11 percent in 1980, and now social scientists are making equally dire forecasts about ""the coming white underclass.'' Americans know about white rural proverty in places like Appalachia, but they've mostly overlooked its urban counterpart. The state of Maryland, for example, has been unusually successful in preventing teen pregnancy, but the drop in birthrates has been primarily among blacks, to whom scarce resources tend to be directed.

Charles Murray, a welfare expert at the American Enterprise Institute, is trying to rectify that by publicizing the idea of a white underclass (page 48). He has long argued that, far from easing the plight of poor women and children, welfare worsens it: teenagers think they can support a baby even without a husband or a job or a high-school education. Murray's prescription is simply to abolish welfare. That idea once consigned him to the right-wing fringe; these days countless moderates are cheering Bill Clinton on in his crusade to ""end welfare as we know it'' -- although few countenance a solution as draconian as Murray's.

Baltimore, with the nation's fourth largest concentration of whites on welfare, is a good spot to examine Murray's arguments. In a white underclass neighborhood west of Baltimore's Pigtown, crack dealers lounge on street corners and addicts stumble through trash-strewn alleys. Young men wander in and out of corner liquor stores, and young women sit on crumbling stoops in the sun, hurling occasional reprimands at their kids. The street feels decayed and forlorn. But it doesn't crackle with the same violence as, say, the black ghetto on Baltimore's east side. Whites below the poverty line are more widely scattered throughout Baltimore than blacks, who can still find it tough to move into a white neighborhood. According to Susan Wiener at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., poor black people in Baltimore are seven times more likely to live in a poor neighborhood than poor white people are.

Murray is right that a dramatic change has taken place in poor white families in the last generation. In O'Donnell Heights, where Geraldine's daughters Kim and Angie live, solid blue-collar families were once the community's bedrock. In the mid-1980s the nearby Bethlehem Steel plant began big layoffs of workers, and other local industries shut down. And about the time the jobs began to vanish, so did the stigma against unwed motherhood. Just up the street from Kim and Angie, Ollie Sprouse raised six kids. She was married to Beverley Danbridge Sprouse Sr. for 51 years, until he died this spring. They were on welfare briefly in the 1970s, but not since. Meanwhile, an unmarried welfare mom living nearby has three kids by three dif-ferent fathers. In the old days, says Mrs. Sprouse, ""that would have been a disgrace. People didn't do that . . . How's she going to explain it to those children when they grow up?''

It isn't easy to put the stigma back into illegitimate birth. The old solution for teen pregnancy, giving the baby up for adoption, has fallen out of favor. Baltimore's Florence Crittenton Mission used to shelter unwed mothers from the censorious glare of polite society while they carried their babies to term. Now called Florence Crittenton Services of Baltimore, Inc., the facility offers drug-treatment programs, parenting classes and therapy for pregnant teens. ""Up until 1980, I was still getting a number of adoptions,'' remembers Crittenton's director, Anne Davis. But none since then. ""The need for hiding is no longer there.'' Geraldine Anderson's mother wouldn't have dreamed of letting her keep her first baby. Nice Catholic girls didn't do that. So Ronnie -- whose wife tracked Anderson down nine years ago -- was adopted by a middle-class Baltimore family, and grew up an only son. He's the only one of Anderson's children to have graduated from college, and earns a comfortable income as a computer-systems analyst.

At Patterson High School, where kids from O'Donnell Heights go, the school clinic is adorned with posters urging abstinence and warning about teen pregnancy. Studies show that this kind of propaganda works, but it has to start when the kids are very young. Once a girl gets pregnant, the high-school nurses scrupulously avoid suggesting that having a baby will quite possibly ruin their lives. They offer ""options counseling'' that makes no distinction between keeping the baby, giving it up for adoption or having an abortion. ""That's their decision,'' explains one nurse. ""We can't put our values on them.''

Her excuse reflects a predictable political deadlock. Liberals think simply distributing condoms will keep teen pregnancy down. Civil libertarians want to keep anything that smacks of moral education -- like prayer -- out of the public schools. Right-wing moralists, while worrying about illegitimate births, won't face up to some hard truths. All of Charles Murray's logic points to the need to terminate teen pregnancies. But virtually nowhere in his writings does he use the dreaded A word; when pressed, in a telephone interview, he sighs deeply and describes himself as ""reluctantly pro-choice.''

Getting married and getting a job are the twin totems of the welfare debate today. Reformers across the political spectrum want to force welfare moms to do both. But Geraldine Anderson didn't always find her husbands to be reliable providers or protectors. She had three children by a man who, some of the children have charged to police, sexually abused her daughters and even her daughters' kids. He denies any wrongdoing, but none of the women would argue that the family was better off when he was in the house. And forcing mothers to get a job can undermine families, much as it did Geraldine Anderson's. ""I was working, and I didn't have much time to watch 'em,'' Anderson explains. ""And we didn't have any money, so we were always living in bad neighborhoods. They got influenced by some bad friends.'' Even the most persistent, well-intentioned mothers can't always triumph over such influences. So far, at least, the high rhetoric of welfare reform has not yet engaged such messy truths.