The Welfare Factor in Social Decay

by David W. Murray and Dave Kopel

May 5, 1995, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. More by Kopel on welfare.

Conservatives and liberals are in rare agreement: welfare must be reformed. But most liberals tend to think that welfare needs to be reformed by making it more helpful, by providing more job training, more day care, and the like. Some, but not all, conservatives counter that welfare is itself harmful; the sooner we drastically change it, the better. Who's right?

In the conventional liberal view, welfare may not be perfect, but it's not a cause of social problems. Paul Offner, legislative assistant to Senator Daniel Moynihan, points out that today, a smaller percentage of black families receive welfare (32.7 percent in 1993) than 20 years ago (37.3 percent in 1973), yet social pathologies such as illegitimacy have worsened. Therefore, says Offner, welfare does not cause social decay.

We beg to differ.

There a plenty of people who are off welfare within two years; they use it as a safety net, just as it was intended. As the Black middle class has grown over the last twenty years, it should be no surprise that the percentage of Blacks who need to use the safety net has declined.

The real problem lies with the changing social profile of the remaining 32.7%, many of whom represent a residual population, isolated in a "hyper ghetto." As the collapse of residential segregation has allowed middle-class Blacks to leave the ghetto, the people left behind are increasingly isolated in a community which is almost entirely dysfunctional. In marked contrast to the Harlem of the 1950s, two-parent families in 1990s Harlem are very rare. And there lies the crux of the welfare dilemma.

Female-headed, single-parent arrangements are now that largest category of those on welfare. Such people are most resistant to governmental help and, in the absence of fathers, most likely to entrench the pattern across generations. The percentage of women and children who remain in the welfare trap increases. Almost by definition, two-parent families don't end up on welfare; women head 95 percent of welfare families. Does welfare cause this family breakdown?

Conservative scholar Lawrence Mead of Princeton thinks not. He testified to Congress that "the sexual behavior of (unwed mothers) is not based on any rational calculus of costs and benefits." Mead's analysis bolsters people who want to resist welfare change designed to reduce welfare's role in promoting illegitimacy.

In fact, welfare is not a master cause, that takes strong and resilient families and casts them instantly into despair. Rather, it is a corrosive force that hurts the most vulnerable at critical points in the life-cycle. Poverty strikes like an opportunistic infection that is most dangerous when the familial immune system has already been weakened.

Welfare dependency sets up a chain of events, particularly in the lives of susceptible young women. At certain key junctures, especially during the time of adolescent sexuality, welfare changes the calculus of choices, both in terms of what happens and what does not happen in the life of a youth. By lessening the costs attached to unwed reproduction, choices are subsidized that interfere with future opportunity.

A monthly increase in cash is usually not enough to "cause" someone to bear a child. But by increasing the benefits and reducing the burdens of a choice that is desirable on other grounds, welfare becomes a catalyst in the timing and frequency of the decision. How could it be otherwise?

Simply put, most people want to have children. How many children to have, and when, are decisions affected by the overall cost-benefit calculation. Welfare recipients are no less likely than anyone else to act in their own self-interest. The migration of welfare recipients to states with higher benefits shows this. Welfare benefits may not in and of themselves cause someone to uproot social ties, but for families otherwise seeking mobility, the financial impact becomes a factor.

Welfare should not be seen as intervening in the lives of young people and suddenly causing them to reproduce. But in the complex decision of multiple factors, the balance shifts in favor of reproduction. If it is tipped at a moment when schooling, job-training, or marriage is disrupted, then the chain-reaction of pathology begins.

Those who deny that welfare benefits affect the calculation of the poor must account for this extraordinary fact: How is it that the poor are so different from other groups that they do not respond rationally to economic choices? Responding to incentives and altering behavior accordingly is an almost universal characteristic. To deny this principle to the poor is to denigrate their human standing.

Let the stakes be clear--if the poor do not respond rationally to benefits, then not only is welfare reform futile, so is virtually every other social policy affecting them, from crime control to motor-voter registration.

Real reform believes that the poor are changeable, and that the children of the poor are educable. By this thesis, we should look to the future generation. The point of reform must be the young children now approaching adolescence. If they can decline child bearing, they can finish school, enter the labor force, marry, and then bring forth children in health. Thus, reform policies are based on hope. They bet on rationality, educability, self-governance, and the future - good bets, all.

This argument is testable. New Jersey is currently engaged in a pilot program of "family caps." That is, the state does not give extra cash benefits to women currently on welfare who have additional children (though food stamps and Medicaid are increased). A woman with three children would have cash benefits frozen at her current $488 a month, and would not receive the heretofore additional $64 for having a fourth child. What's the effect?

Rutgers University will release the analysis by the year's end. But preliminary results are striking: Unmarried women already on welfare were compared to a "control group" exempted from the caps. Their birth rate is 19% lower. The problem is complex, as is the human heart that drives it. But keep your eyes on New Jersey - a lot of hope rides on the outcome, as does the truth about the welfare "cause."

Dr. David Murray is Director of Research at the Statistical Assessment Service. Dave Kopel is Research Director of the Independence Institute, a think-tank in Golden, Colorado.

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