Women on welfare have fewer children than do other women, contrary to the prevailing public notion that welfare families are larger than most U.S. families, according to a new study.
Published in the latest issue of the American Sociological Review, the study is the first of its kind to compare the fertility rates of welfare women to those of other women. But it is one of many studies in recent years to refute popular misconceptions about who is on welfare assistance and why.
The assumption that poor mothers have more babies either out of ignorance or to collect public assistance is simply not borne out by the facts, said Mark Rank, author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis.
Working from a sample of 2,796 Wisconsin households drawn randomly from those receiving welfare benefits, Rank studied fertility among 965 women, ages 18 to 44. In the study, Rank found, 45.8 per 1,000 women gave birth each year. In contrast, the fertility rate for Wisconsin women in general was 75.3, and for the nation as whole, the figure was 71.1
Although the study focused on only one state, the findings, if anything, are “quite conservative,” Rank said, because Wisconsin, like California and New York, has a relatively generous welfare program.
“If you were to study the rates in Texas or Mississippi (where welfare benefits are low), you wouldn’t expect anyone to be drawn to the program or try to benefit from it,” he said.
Rank cautioned that his data does not address the question of whether public assistance programs encourage women who do not have children, particularly teen-age women, to start having them to collect benefits.
The Wisconsin study does, however, corroborate a UCLA study of Los Angeles County done two years ago and data collected this spring by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Social Services. In both cases, the data showed that there are fewer than two children per family--1.9 in the UCLA study, 1.89 in the county study--in families receiving what is generally known as welfare.
The numbers on family size are in stark contrast to public opinion polls, said Leonard Schneiderman, UCLA’s dean of the School of Social Welfare. Public opinion polls suggest that most Americans believe that typical welfare families have three, four or five children in them.
“There is,” Schneiderman said, “tremendous public misapprehension about how big (welfare) families are, just as there is wild exaggeration about how many of these people cheat . . . and how many people are on welfare permanently, rather than for short periods of time.”
Studies have shown that only 1% or less of welfare recipients try to collect assistance for which they are not qualified, and only about half of the families who receive aid do so for longer than two years.
The tragedy about the welfare program in this country is not that it involves so many people but that it does so little to help those who need it, Schneiderman said.
“More than 20% of all U.S. children are now born into poverty, and yet the program removes only about 3% of poor children from poverty,” he said.
Concluded Rank, author of the Wisconsin study, “The economic, social and psychological costs of becoming pregnant and having a child while on public assistance are perceived as clearly outweighing the benefits.”