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Quayle gains his revenge as liberals target single parents: The welfare debate has created some strange allies, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington

SO Dan Quayle was right after all. Back in the 1992 campaign, George Bush's much-mocked Vice-President reduced liberals to mirth with an outspoken attack on a television sitcom heroine who became an on- screen single mother. Simple- minded Republican primitivism, they sneered. But no longer. Today, from President Bill Clinton down, scarcely a Democrat in the land does not admit that Mr Quayle had a point.

Congress may hardly have begun work on the administration's health care proposals. But another White House task force is drawing up an even more ambitious plan - to overhaul the US welfare system and fulfil the promise which symbolised Mr Clinton as a 'New Democrat': his election pledge to 'end welfare as we know it'.

His advisers have reached no conclusions, but their philosophy is clear. The state can only do so much; in the end people must take responsibility for their own fate. Mr Clinton proposes limiting welfare payments to two years, after which anyone able to work must do so, 'either in a private sector job, or through community service.'

The public is ready to listen. Welfare arrangements have failed to rescue the urban, predominantly black, underclass from poverty, unemployment and crime. But the debate has acquired a new starting point: what to do about illegitimacy and the breakdown of the family.

In a rousing and emotional speech in Memphis last month, Mr Clinton argued that 'we cannot repair the American community and restore the American family until we provide the values, the discipline and the reward that work gives.' Many, however, believe the problem is the other way round.

The turning point was 29 October. That day, the conservative social scientist Charles Murray published an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled 'The Coming White Underclass,' which argued that illegitimacy was the single most important problem of the contemporary US, 'more important than crime, drugs, poverty, illiteracy, welfare or homelessness, because it drives everything else'.

His views were not new. Mr Murray has been saying this for years, earning - rather like Mr Quayle - vilification from the policymakers. Nothing, though, is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.

Mr Murray makes a compelling statistical case. According to 1991 figures, the US rate of illegimate births is now close to 30 per cent, above the 26 per cent level among blacks that provoked the celebrated 1971 memorandum of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, now a Democratic senator but then with the Nixon administration, warning of the breakdown of the black family.

Since then, illegitimate births among blacks have risen to 68 per cent, and around 80 per cent in many inner cities. Even more striking, however, the proportion of illegitimate births among whites has jumped to 22 per cent, close to the black rate in the late 1960s which so alarmed Mr Moynihan. The only remedy, says Mr Murray, is to go 'cold turkey' by turning off the welfare tap for single mothers.

No longer, he says, should they receive cash benefits, food stamps or subsidised public housing. The clock should be turned back to an age when social stigma kept out-of- wedlock births under control. Single mothers should be forced to turn to family, friends and private institutions for help. If this is not forthcoming, the children should be given for adoption or placed in orphanages.

Predictably, conservatives have enthused over Mr Murray's proposals, and his diatribes against the 'Lord of the Flies' culture of 'physical violence, immediate gratification and predatory sex' which rules the ghetto streets, as vindication of what they had been arguing for years. More astonishing has been the readiness of Democrats to give him a hearing.

One reason is that by bringing whites into the equation, Mr Murray has lifted the welfare debate beyond the confines of race. Even more important is the despair of even compassionate liberals at the failure of the poverty crisis to yield to any treatment: could an attack on illegitimacy be the solution?

Mr Clinton called Mr Murray's views 'essentially right'. Donna Shalala, his Health Secretary and the most liberal member of his cabinet, has declared her belief that 'having children is just wrong'. Black leaders do not dismiss the proposal out of hand. Even black liberal commentators like Dorothy Guillam of the Washington Post do not quarrel with the diagnosis, but with the treatment Mr Murray urges: she calls it 'social engineering on the backs of poor people'.

Experiments to curb welfare payments to single mothers in New Jersey and other states offer no proof that punishment works. Nor is there any demonstrable link thus far between a decrease in illegitimate births and a drop in crime and drug-use.

But whatever happens, US attitudes to welfare are undergoing a sea change. Congress is not in a hurry to enact new legislation. But Wisconsin plans to drop out of the federal welfare system, and other states may follow. Dan Quayle can savour his revenge.