Should mothers who have children out of wedlock be denied welfare?
Since Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1965, the federal government has spent roughly $18 trillion fighting poverty, almost $700 billion this year alone, on some 107 separate programs. Yet, the poverty rate stands at 15.1 percent. While this number may be partially inflated because of the poor economy, it is important to realize that, despite trillions in spending, we have never gotten the poverty rate below 11 percent. Clearly we are doing some things wrong.
One is perpetuating government programs that create an incentive for behavior that is likely to lead to poverty. In particular, our welfare programs continue to provide benefits to women who give birth out of wedlock.
The concern over this trend is not about personal morality. Having a child out of wedlock often means a lifetime of poverty. Children living with single mothers are almost six times more likely to be poor than those living with two parents. More than 20 percent of welfare recipients start on welfare because they have an out-of-wedlock birth. They also tend to stay on welfare longer than other recipients.
The trend is even worse among unwed teenage mothers. Half go on welfare within one year of the birth of their first child; 75 percent are on welfare within five years of the child's birth. Women who started on welfare because of an out-of-wedlock birth average more than nine years on welfare and make up roughly 40 percent of all recipients who are on welfare for 10 years or longer.
While there are many factors behind the rise in out-of-wedlock births, the availability of welfare is one. Of the more than 20 major studies of the issue, more than three-quarters show a significant link between benefit levels and out-of-wedlock childbearing.
Obviously no one gets pregnant to get welfare. But by softening the immediate as opposed to the long-term economic consequences of out-of-wedlock births, welfare has removed a major incentive to avoid them. As Charles Murray, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, put it, “The evil of the modern welfare state is not that it bribes women to have babies — wanting to have babies is natural — but that it enables women to bear children without the natural social restraints.”
A good start to a welfare policy that might actually reduce poverty would be to set a date — say nine months from today — after which an out-of-wedlock birth would no longer make one eligible for welfare.
The case for rejecting a policy that would deny cash assistance to mothers who have children out of wedlock was compelling in 1996, when Congress created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — the current welfare law — and it's even more compelling now.
For starters, such a policy would deny support to children who bear no responsibility for their parents’ actions. With growing evidence that poverty among young children reduces their chances of success throughout their lives, we should do everything we can to make sure that all children have the support they need to become productive adults.
A recent article by University of California, Irvine, education professor Greg J. Duncan and University of Wisconsin, Madison, professor of social work Katherine Magnuson provides all the evidence we need. Duncan is one of the most respected academic researchers on the consequences of childhood poverty, and he has always been particularly cautious in drawing policy conclusions from academic research. Two key points from the article stand out:
The authors recommend that states avoid TANF policy changes that threaten the well-being of young children. Indeed, we should be seeking more ways to remediate deep and persistent poverty in early childhood — not fewer.
Besides, although TANF provides an important safety net for single-parent families, it is not the main source of support for families with out-of-wedlock children. So, denying them these benefits will play no role in changing societal behavior. In the late 1990s, when the economy was strong, record numbers of single parents entered the labor force, reaching a high of 83 percent by 2000. Even in the current economy, 74 percent of them still work. In contrast, only 27 families for every 100 in poverty receive TANF benefits. And, TANF benefits are meager: In the median state in 2011, a family of three received $429 per month; in 14 states, such a family received less than $300.
In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that children born to unmarried parents could not be punished for their parents’ actions. The question we should be answering is: How can we make investments in our children that guarantee bright and productive futures for all of them? The answers matter not only for our children, but for all of us.