AS A LAWYER, I happen to represent the housing authority of Camden City, N.J., which operated nine housing developments -- about 2,600 units. We decided a few years ago to create a baseball league among the complexes and we asked parents to participate. About 250 or 300 people showed up -- including only two men. Are men just not interested in baseball? I was curious, so I asked the executive director to find out how many males were recorded on the leases. Less than 2 percent. That's what the welfare system has created -- a world completely different from the one in which most of us live every day. We have two societies, existing side by side, but responding to different values and motivations.

I tell you this because, as a New Jersey legislator, I was a prime mover in the welfare upheaval -- reform is too mild a word -- that my state began three years ago. Many of our reforms are now being duplicated in other states and some have been focal points in the welfare debate raging in the U.S. Congress. No one who cares about the fate of poor people can watch the wholesale attack on social programs now underway on Capitol Hill without trepidation. But there is one aspect of the proposed reforms that I feel confident about. It's that my state -- and many others -- are ready and able to take on our new responsibilities. And if New Jersey is any indication, and I think it is, we can be trusted with the power Congress is ready to hand us.

What has put New Jersey's Family Development Program in the national news is primarily the "family cap" that denies extra payments to welfare mothers who have additional children. Some have criticized this as too harsh. Partly that's because they don't understand the full range of measures and all the additional supports we have put in place. But I think it's also because they don't fully appreciate the near total transformation needed to make the world that most welfare recipients live in mirror -- and ultimately merge into -- the rest of America. For many years I, like most other Americans, didn't pay a whole lot of attention to how we came to build a welfare system that sends all the wrong signals. I grew up in Lawnside, N.J., an all-African-American community not far from Camden. I worked in legal services after graduating from law school, but soon I was busy building my law practice around tax and commercial matters. When I came to the state legislature, people somehow seemed to assume that because I was an African American I would focus on human services. Instead, I decided to specialize in transportation. I went from that to the appropriations committee and ultimately I became majority leader in the Assembly, probably the third most powerful position in the state.

But along the way, as I walked among my neighbors and constituents, I came to realize that, compassion aside, my fate is bound up with that of all my fellow African Americans, and not just the successful ones. Though we are not the majority of people on welfare, we are disproportionately there. So if all you see of us on television are drug addicts and welfare mothers, and if, in fact, too many of us are not productive members of society, when you see me you'll judge me the same way. And so it became very important to me to make the social support system work right. And to do that, you need to tell people the real truth about how that system works -- not how you wish it would, but how it does.

In my city of Camden, which is the poorest in the state of New Jersey and the fifth poorest in the nation, there are 123 square blocks with no legitimate males. None, absolutely none. People ask, what do you mean by legitimate males? I mean men who can rightfully take their place in that community. That should not surprise you. The way welfare has traditionally worked, despite all the good intentions, is by teaching all the wrong values.

Think about the differences between the rewards and penalties that apply in mainstream America and those that govern the welfare world. When average working Americans quit jobs, or take off unauthorized time, their employers don't increase their paychecks, they cut them. When middle-class families decide to have another child, the breadwinners don't go to their bosses and say: "I am having another child, am I entitled to a raise?" The expense of added children is absorbed by adjusting the household budget, or by someone in the family securing a part-time job. On the other hand, when middle-class people decide to marry, they don't stand to lose their major source of income, as a woman on welfare does. And when someone in a middle-class family takes a job, their income and resources go up, not down, as is often the case for a welfare family.

If we truly believe welfare to be a transitional system and not a permanent poverty sump, we must realize that poor people, like the rest of us, make rational decisions in their own best interest. And we need to change both their perception and the reality of where those interests lie. We need to change things so as to promote the values that in this country -- and don't tell me about Switzerland or France or Uganda or some place else -- work to make you successful and self sufficient.

So in New Jersey we set about changing the choices that participants in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program face. And we started our experiment, not in some rural county where hardly anyone is on welfare (as is often the case in highly touted reform projects) but in the toughest counties in the state -- Camden, Essex and Hudson -- that together included almost 60 percent of the state's welfare recipients. Then we expanded it to eight counties and now to the whole state. (Some parts of the program, such as the family cap, went statewide immediately.) The program has not been cheap: New Jersey has spent millions of additional dollars since it went into effect in October 1992, but we've spent our money wisely.

Under the plan, every AFDC family member, even if they are in a job or training program, is required to obtain a high-school diploma or its equivalent. But they are also provided with a range of educational and vocational opportunities. And if they land a job, they can keep their Medicaid benefits for two years, instead of the federal limit of one year. On the other hand, if they don't take advantage of these opportunities, they risk a 20-percent reduction in benefits. We assigned a caseworker to draw up a "contract" with every family that would craft and monitor an assistance program tailored to its individual needs. So, for example, if a welfare mother needs child care services while she works toward her high-school equivalency diploma, New Jersey provides them. If a child in the family needs tutoring, New Jersey provides it. And if a family member requires substance abuse counseling or treatment, that too becomes part of the individualized plan. And all those services are coordinated out of one place -- a modern office with cubicles, nice carpeting -- so that families don't have to run from bureaucracy to bureaucracy in search of help and are treated with the dignity accorded clients of a professional service.

We also contracted out all our job training to the private sector. It makes no sense to have government training when employers don't believe it produces the skills and discipline they want in workers. A government program may create nice middle-class jobs for some bureaucrats, but it doesn't create jobs for the people you are trying to affect if the private sector, which creates 77 percent of the jobs in our state, doesn't buy into it.

And we changed two state laws that were clear impediments to marriage and family life among welfare households. The first one, commonly referred to as the "step-parent law," now permits a mother to marry without facing a loss of welfare, provided the couple's total income is below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. (When a stepfather marries into a middle class family he is not held financially responsible for his stepchildren, so why should a man marrying into a welfare family be penalized?) The second measure eliminates the 30-percent reduction in AFDC payments when both parents are married and live in the home.

With these incentives, we thought, more fathers and father figures should begin to materialize in welfare families, bringing a sense of strength and stability back into the household. But frankly, we didn't expect the change to happen over night. When you've been sending the wrong message for 40 years -- and when the larger society continues to experience high rates of divorce and irresponsible behavior -- you might imagine that it would take years, even decades, for welfare families to adjust their behavior. But the early results have been strikingly positive.

According to official data from the New Jersey Department of Human Services, since we received the federal waiver to put these reforms into action in 1992, the number of AFDC recipients in jobs has more than doubled from about 9,500 to more than 21,000. Almost 16,000 of these job-takers have left the rolls. The number of recipients receiving job training has risen from about 11,000 to 16,000, those in education programs from about 9,500 to more than 13,700.

And then, of course, there is the much-discussed drop in birth rates. Within the 12-month period after the full welfare program was initiated, the reported birth rate among AFDC cases in New Jersey dropped by more than 11 percent -- and by an astounding 17.8 percent among women likely to become newly pregnant: those of child-bearing age who had been on welfare for at least a year and had not had a child in the last 10 months. About that there is no dispute. That lower birth rate has continued since then.

It is possible, of course, that some mothers did not bother to report additional births since their AFDC payments would not increase (though food stamps, Medicaid and other benefits would). But researchers have pointed to the fact that a randomly selected "control group" of New Jersey welfare mothers -- who were told by their caseworkers that the family cap would not apply to them -- experienced virtually the same drop in birth rates as a comparable group to whom the new law applied.

The control group, of course, had an incentive to report any new births since they would have their benefits increased, but why did their behavior change? It will take more research to answer that question but one explanation was pointed out by the University of Massachusetts' Peter Rossi, by Rudolph Myers of New Jersey's Department of Human Services and by other researchers at an American Enterprise Institute symposium at which I spoke last year. It is that the control group was bombarded by the same statewide (and, indeed, nationwide) publicity that surrounded introduction of New Jersey's new program. Perhaps they feared, despite their caseworkers' assurances, that they too would have their benefits limited later. But it is also likely that, just like the women on the new program, they were influenced by the barrage of information both in the media and in program offices, urging them to make responsible choices about their own future and that of their children. And, of course, the family cap was only one of many changes that, taken together, reinforced the ideas of self-responsibility and investment in the future. When I talk about these changes -- both the carrots and the sticks -- I am often asked: What about the children? Aren't they hurt by the penalties the new rules impose? My answer to that is that it is the old welfare system that is a disservice to children, because it allows adults to hide behind those children. If parents are so irresponsible that they are unwilling to come to work or go to school, what makes you think they're taking the added welfare dollars and spending them responsibly on their kids? There are laws on the books to protect children whose parents fail to house, clothe and treat them decently, and, sadly but truthfully, we will need to continue to enforce those laws to protect those children.

One of the biggest things we in New Jersey have helped get started is an honest discussion of the world of welfare. We have begun stripping away the bureaucratic jargon and intimidating language that has long separated policy makers from the poor people who are forced to languish in a welfare system that has become unproductive and socially bankrupt. As a result, a wider range of Americans has joined the welfare debate and that, I believe -- despite the current dangers of an over-hasty scramble on Capitol Hill to save budget dollars -- will in the end make real welfare reform less antagonistic and more plausible. For too long, getting off welfare has been like trying to climb a mountain. What we in New Jersey -- and many other states -- are trying to do is to put in place the values and the opportunities that would make that escape more like simply crossing a road and joining the world where most of us in America live. Wayne Bryant, who introduced New Jersey's welfare reform in the legislature, is a state senator from the 5th District.