Human lives are more important than dollars

By Dave Kopel  

 Denver Post, June 25, 1995


Many supporters of the status quo have been demanding, "What's  the big deal about welfare reform?" Opponents of welfare reform  point out that Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the core welfare program, accounts for only a small share of government spending.


A two-part series in The Denver Post last week mistakenly  attempted to show that reform may be unnecessary since state programs such as the one in Colorado are "working."


The larger and more important point about welfare reform, however, is not about the waste of money, but the waste of human lives. Welfare may be a relatively small portion of the 1995 Colorado budget, but atomic research was a relatively small portion of the 1945 military budget. Both programs cause destruction far out of proportion to their dollar costs.


As Independence Institute publications have emphasized, many people who go on welfare leave it within a few years. They use welfare as it was intended: a temporary safety net. Cutting the size of AFDC and food stamp payments would unfairly penalize this large group.


But at any given time, about half the people on welfare (nationally), are on for a stretch of eight or more years, according to the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee. Subsidizing periods of prolonged idleness is unfair to taxpayers, but it is much worse for the children who are reared in such homes.


Although welfare advocates will strenuously deny it, a mountain of sociological evidence suggests that the current welfare system promotes illegitimacy. Welfare does not cause illegitimacy by  making otherwise stable people decide to have a child out of  wedlock; teenagers get pregnant for many reasons other than  financial ones. But as at least eight separate studies have found  that availability of welfare makes possible the choice for a  pregnant teenager to choose not to marry, to set up her own  household (rather than living with older people who could help out), and to not let the baby be adopted. These choices are profoundly harmful to the child.


Sociological research shows that illegitimate children are 70 percent more likely to be expelled from school; half as likely to do well in school; more than twice as likely to have illegitimate children themselves; almost twice as likely to get divorced if they ever do marry; less likely to use contraceptives as teenagers; 25 to 50 percent more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, hyperactivity or excessive dependence; twice as likely to engage in antisocial behavior, and two to three times more likely to need psychiatric care. All these results are based on studies that held other variables (such as race, parental income or parental education) constant.


All of the suffering inflicted on illegitimate children comes back to harm the rest of society. The single best predictor of the crime rate in a neighborhood is the percentage of illegitimate children. Criminological studies show that the large majority of teenage violent criminals come from one-parent or no-parent homes. (If you don't believe me, go down to juvenile court and observe for a while.)


The relationship between fatherlessness and crime is so strong that, once one considers household structure, the variables of race and poverty disappear as predictors of crime in a neighborhood. In other words, minority and poor neighborhoods are disproportionately involved in crime only to the extent that they are disproportionately fatherless.


Welfare is, of course, not the only cause of illegitimacy, but it is a major one. And when illegitimacy is combined with low maternal education, poor prenatal health care (even when it is available free) and other social pathologies - as is inevitable when women are paid to have children they can't possibly support - then the demonstrated harm to children grows exponentially.


If we do not know how to fully reverse the stunning increase in illegitimacy in the past 30 years, we can at least stop subsidizing it. Welfare payments should not be available to girls who have never been married and have never worked. Rather than being given their own apartment, pregnant, never-married girls who cannot support themselves should be encouraged to live in group homes which teach the lifestyle skills and self-discipline necessary for gaining independence.


Women already on welfare should not receive additional cash benefits for having additional children. No other family in America gets a raise for having an extra child.


A New Jersey law, dubbed the "family cap," makes Medicaid and extra food stamps available for children born into welfare families, but the mother does not receive extra cash. The New Jersey experiment has led to a drop of almost one-third in the natality rate of welfare mothers in New Jersey, compared to a control group. New Jersey lawmakers were happy about the immediate savings in welfare costs, but all New Jersey residents will be safer 15 to 20 years from now - as there will be fewer hopeless,

 violent young people who were born into families that couldn't rear them properly.


While decreasing destructive forms of social spending (such as welfare for able-bodied adults who refuse to find work), we should increase social spending on programs that do work.


One of the most successful anti-poverty experiments of the 1960s was the Perry Preschool Project, a very high-quality program for 123 low-IQ children from low-income black families. The two-year program cost $6,300 per child per year (in 1986 dollars). Follow-up research estimated that the Perry program resulted in criminal-justice savings of $2,400 per child in avoided delinquency and $6,800 per child in avoided adult crime.


Perry yielded major financial benefits other than safety. Projected welfare expenditures plummeted, while projected tax receipts from the Perry student's increased lifetime earnings soared. The major benefit, of course, was non-monetary. The Perry children are leading immensely better lives.


The Perry experience suggests that rather than abolishing Head Start, we should make it much, much better. (The current Head Start program produces short-term intellectual gains, but these gains have been shown to fade within a few years.) Giving at-risk preschoolers the 3-year-old's equivalent of an Ivy League education is very expensive, but it saves money and lives in the long run.


One way to make additional resources available for innovative programs is to allow taxpayers to give to private charities the tax dollars which would otherwise be used by the government welfare system. As Marvin Olasky details in "The Tragedy of American Compassion," private charities are far more likely than government programs to insist that recipients take long-term steps toward self-sufficiency.


Adoption should be strongly encouraged for never-married, never-employed pregnant girls and women. Young unmarried women who choose adoption are, compared to peers who keep the child, more likely to complete high school, to be employed, to not live in poverty, to not end up on welfare, to marry eventually, and are less likely to have a second illegitimate child. Yet only six percent of single teenage mothers choose adoption. One reason for the low adoption rate is that 40 percent of pregnancy counselors never even mention adoption, let alone point out its benefits, even when teenage mothers indicate that they are highly ambivalent about the child.


The word "welfare" comes from the Old English "wel faran," meaning "to fare well." No matter what the cost, it is time for Colorado and the United States to begin creating a welfare system that helps people to fare well. The current welfare system does not, and it is no bargain, at any price.


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