The failure of welfare reform

AMY L. WAX is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

THIS FALL marks the 10th anniversary of Clinton-era welfare reform, which imposed strict work requirements and time limits for receiving some forms of federal relief.

Have the rules been a success? If the goal is employment, reform has unquestionably triumphed. Many single mothers -- the prime recipients under the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children program -- have dropped off the rolls entirely. Some states have seen welfare caseloads cut in half, and significant declines have occurred in virtually every state.

What’s more, growing numbers of aid recipients are at work; many states have reached their statutory goal of finding at least part-time employment for a majority of their recipients.

But although work requirements were the centerpiece of the 1996 statute, its chief declared goal, as revealed by its preamble, was to reverse the decades-long decline in the nuclear family. If judged by this objective, welfare reform has been an abysmal failure. Domestic disorder continues to roil the lives of poor women. Among the unskilled, extramarital childbearing is relentlessly on the rise, and marriage grows less common and less stable. More than one-third of the children of women with a high school degree or less are now born out of wedlock.


Evidence collected by sociologists over decades shows that, by almost every measure, illegitimate children have worse outcomes than children born into two-parent families. The 70% out-of-wedlock birthrate in the black community has had particularly unfortunate effects. Yet the new welfare rules have failed to improve matters. They have neither reversed nor slowed the proliferation of single-parent families.

That welfare reform has failed to shore up fractured families should not be surprising. Although the 1996 law abolished the regime of no-stringsattached cash grants to single mothers -- and although work is now required -- the law still effectively subsidizes single-parent families.

For one thing, many states continue to reserve the lion’s share of their benefits for single mothers and their children. But even where that is not the case, the law still does little to discourage single-motherhood.

Under the 1996 federal law, states can offer generous “income disregards” (which allow women to keep earnings while receiving some aid) as well as an array of in-kind and earmarked benefits and refundable tax credits. All this government help is designed to make up the difference between what a person can earn on her own and what is needed to get by.

In the case of single-mother families, such a gap is virtually certain to exist. As scholar Charles Murray stated long ago, the mother-child family is not, and will never be, a viable economic unit. A single parent must play two roles -- caring for children and earning a living -- that wives and husbands traditionally assumed together. As a result, most such families end up poor.

In replacing “something for nothing” with subsidized work, the new welfare law commits to aiding poor working parents regardless of family form or other aspects of personal conduct. By propping up single parents, the law mutes the moral hazard, but does not abolish it.

As in the past, a woman can still command public assistance simply by choosing to have a child she knows she cannot support. Similarly, a man can qualify his child for public aid simply by abandoning it. Under the 1996 law, the public -- including those people who avoid government handouts at great personal sacrifice -- are still left paying for others’ failures. In this respect, welfare reform changes little.

The old social rules that once defined out-of-wedlock childbearing as irresponsible -- and paternal abandonment as exploitative -- are gone, and the change has been cheered on by some left-wing thinkers, who attack the very foundations of the old rules.

Academics such as Cass Sunstein, Liam Murphy and Thomas Nagel have repeatedly assured us that self-reliance is a cruel hoax. According to these scholars, the economy cannot operate without the government, and we all lean on each other. Taken to its logical conclusion, their argument is that there is no coherent difference between private property and collective resources. Because no one is entitled to anything, what individuals possess is nothing more than what government allows them to keep. There can thus be no objection to taxing hard-won earnings and transferring them to others.

Feminists add their voices by asserting that all dependencies are alike, so living on welfare is no worse than relying on a husband’s support. And anyway, because child care is a form of work as worthy as any other, they argue, the government should pay single moms to care for their own kids. Finally, left-leaning economists tell us that tax breaks of any kind -- including those for the rich and for corporations -- are just another form of welfare. So in the end, everyone’s on the dole.

Much of this is sheer sophistry, but no matter. The test of these notions is not logic, but experience. Once the old distinctions collapse and the value of self-reliance goes out the window, all bets are off and moral vertigo sets in. If we’re all subsidizing each other, it’s hard to find a reason to refrain from maximizing our own share.

Even the most straight-laced among us -- such as the Orthodox Jews who live in the New York community of Kiryas Joel and who the New York Times recently reported often live below the poverty line and “rely heavily on public assistance” to support their large families -- find it difficult to resist.

To be sure, it does not help that the very possibility of economic self-sufficiency has been mugged by reality. Stagnant earnings for the unskilled have put married couples under intense economic pressure, with single breadwinners the hardest hit. The desire to shore up traditional families has only increased the willingness across the political spectrum to support workers at public expense.

Subsidized work is here to stay. But Congress’ hope that reforming welfare to demand work would reverse family decline was a fantasy because mandated work is a half-measure. Economic outcomes depend critically on interpersonal behavior. Enforcing demands in one realm but not the other has yielded a social universe divided in two.

There’s no question that marriage still protects, as social scientists such as Robert Lerman have shown. Those who live by the old values largely avoid poverty and enhance their children’s chances of success.

In contrast, those who accept our invitation to abandon those values make up an ever-larger presence. Deprived of what money can’t buy -- attentive residential fathers, stable homes and orderly lives -- their children have a harder time competing with the rest of us. Welfare reform does not change that and never will.