Don’t Blame Welfare for Society’s Ills : Offer poor families support services to help them better their lives, not orphanages to house children of unwed parents.
Almost every week, I get a call from a journalist who wants to know why rates of teen-age childbearing in the United States are rising and would like me to explain the link between welfare and early childbearing or to comment on the tough measures that some states are enacting to discourage welfare dependency. Conservative social policy theorist Charles Murray’s argument that stamping out welfare would stamp out teen-age childbearing seems to be catching on. The journalists are intrigued by his catchy proposal, endorsed by other conservative critics, to set up orphanages to raise children born to teen mothers.
I have deep reservations about Murray’s ideas. I was one of scores of economists, demographers and sociologists who recently issued a public statement questioning the link between welfare and non-marital childbearing. We endorsed efforts to reform our system of granting public assistance, but warned that abolishing welfare would work to the detriment of children unless it were replaced by adequate support for impoverished families. Many of us doubt that reducing or even ending welfare would have much effect, if any, on out-of-wedlock births.
Non-marital childbearing has risen in the United States during the past two decades. The growth has not occurred exclusively among the young, the poor, minorities or even the disadvantaged. In fact, the rate of non-marital childbearing for African American teen-agers actually dropped or remained stable during most of the 1970s and ‘80s, while it increased steadily and rapidly for white women in their 20s and 30s.
Changing levels of non-marital childbearing do not reflect a greater penchant of unmarried children to have more children, as is commonly believed, but rather a lower propensity of unmarried women to marry, especially when they become pregnant. Moreover, what has been happening in the United States has occurred in nearly every Western nation.
Almost no expert on family change believes that welfare played anything more than a minor role in the transformation of the family or in reducing the confidence that Americans now place in the institution of marriage. For one thing, the generosity of public assistance has virtually nothing to do with the growth of non-marital childbearing. Out-of-wedlock childbearing has increased at the same time that welfare benefits have declined significantly in real dollars. Also, the level of benefits in various states is not related to the incidence of non-marital childbearing. Indeed, no reliable evidence shows that reducing or eliminating welfare altogether will make people stop having babies or marry when they become pregnant.
Would removing children from the homes of unmarried mothers stem the rise of out-of-wedlock childbearing or help the offspring of never-married parents have a better life? Apart from the dubious constitutionality, let’s consider the wisdom of establishing orphanages for the children of unmarried parents. Our record of designing and supporting benevolent public institutions for disadvantaged children is dismal, to say the least. The quality of our inner-city schools, health facilities, recreational programs and social services leads me to conclude that low-income children are at least as well cared for by their parents as they are by public institutions.
Who is going to pay for these new services? I don’t see any of the advocates volunteering to raise taxes to fund current services for children, much less expand prenatal and neonatal care, day care or after-school programs.
Here’s a counterproposal for Charles Murray and his band of child-savers. Why take children away from their parents? Instead, establish residential family centers to house low-income parents (mothers, fathers or other surrogate parents) and their children. Run them as cooperatives, giving the families supportive services such as parent education, health services, day care and recreational programs. Working parents would have a place to leave their children during the day and non-working parents would be expected to give more time and service in exchange for these benefits.
Family cooperatives might be expensive, but not nearly as costly as orphanages. They would be less controversial, legally and politically, than severing children from their parents. By relieving some of the economic, social and psychological burdens on low-income parents, they might benefit children. Those who claim to worry about family preservation ought to consider lending parents a helping hand instead of promoting schemes to separate them from their children.