Single mothers faced with dollars 64 question in welfare test: Rosie Waterhouse examines a US welfare scheme cited as a possible model for Britain

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The Independent Online
A SCHEME in the American state of New Jersey which caps the payment of welfare benefits to single mothers after the first child - cited by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, as a possible model for Britain - is known as the dollars 64 dollar question.

This is the amount of state aid a mother will lose for each extra child she bears after being on welfare for more than 10 months.

Condemned by civil libertarians and women's rights groups as an attack on the poor and ethnic minority groups, and a form of social engineering, it is one part of a wide-ranging state programme to reduce the number of people dependent on welfare - and ultimately the welfare bill.

Contrary to recent media reports, including a BBC Panorama programme which stated that the New Jersey experiment had cut dramatically the number of babies born to lone mothers, the 'welfare cap' came into effect only in August this year and any trends are not known.

Two other legal changes introduced as part of the so-called Family Development Programme, were intended to remove disincentives to couples with children getting married. Previously, single-parent families received two-thirds more welfare than two-parent families and this was seen as a discouragement to two-parent families.

Since the Family Development Act in July 1992, two-parent families will get the same amount of benefit as a single-parent family.

Another disincentive to marry was that if a single mother re- married, her new husband's income was taken into account and she would lose benefits. Now he is allowed to earn up to dollars 20,000 dollars before she loses benefit. The Act also introduced measures to empower the state to trace absent fathers and make them contribute towards their children's upkeep. A similar policy, the Child Support Act, was recently introduced in Britain.

Jacqueline Tencza, spokeswoman for the New Jersey department of human services, said the benefit clampdown was only part of a programme to encourage more single mothers to return to work through education and training. Incentives include child care facilities and the payment of child health benefit, Medicaid, for mothers whose employers do not provide it.

Ms Tencza said the welfare cap was not just a measure to reduce teenage pregnancies; it affected all single mothers. She said the programme was intended to be educational, not punitive.

The high number of teenage pregnancies is seen as a major problem across the United States.

In Maryland, a comprehensive, and controversial, education programme reduced the number of births to teenage mothers by 5 per cent in 1989 and another 5 per cent in 1990.

Measures include sex education from the age of nine, a mass media campaign, encouraging parents to talk to their children about their sexuality, and the availability of contraceptives for all high-school pupils from family planning and health clinics, some of them in schools.

At a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference in Blackpool on Tuesday night, Mr Howard referred to the New Jersey welfare capping scheme for single mothers and said: 'We need to examine closely the results of these and other schemes to see whether there are any lessons for us.'

But yesterday his Cabinet colleague, Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, said the Government had 'no plans' to introduce such a scheme.

Research by the Family Planning Association and Middlesex University, commissioned for a World in Action programme this week, showed 90 per cent of teenage pregnancies were unplanned.

Sue Slipman, director of the National Council for One Parent Families, said the majority of unmarried mothers in the UK had only one child.