The next great welfare debate

Posted: Mar 01, 2001 12:00 AM
Five years ago, Congress abolished the welfare entitlement and took new steps to move welfare mothers to work. A few weeks ago, experts gathered for a groundbreaking evaluation conference, "The New World of Welfare" (see The results have been astonishing: Caseloads have dropped by half, poverty declined, effects on child well-being are mixed but at the very least, as one conference paper put it, "the sky has not fallen," as many predicted.

And yet, in another sense, welfare reform has been a failure. In an extraordinary paper, National Fatherhood Initiative president Wade Horn and Urban Institute scholar Isabel Sawhill note that 40 percent of our children still live apart from their fathers; as many as 60 percent will join fatherless households before they turn 18. Five years after welfare reform, a third of our children are born outside of marriage. "By focusing so heavily on moving mothers into the workforce," they remind us, "states have neglected to work on the equally important task of increasing the number of two-parent families." Welcome to the new welfare debate: How can we support not only work, but marriage?

In 1965, when Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's report sounded the alarm about the disintegrating black family, about a quarter of African-American children were born outside of marriage. Today, according to a new Annie E. Casey Foundation report, there are only two states (Utah and Idaho) where less than a quarter of babies are born out of wedlock. In Vermont, for example, where 96 percent of births are to white mothers, the illegitimacy rate jumped from 20 percent in 1990 to 28 percent in 1998. Florida's illegitimacy rate jumped from 32 percent in 1990 to 37 percent in 1998. In New York City, 45 percent of babies are born out of wedlock. Hartford, Conn., tops the list of the worst American city: 80 percent of babies are born to unwed mothers.

Connecticut Gov. John Rowland's response to the news was characteristic of the old mind-set that must change. His spokesman told The New York Times: "He's known for some time that Hartford and some other cities in the state lag behind the rest of the country." So what is Gov. Rowland doing about it this problem he's known so long about? Promoting urban renewal, he claimed, and education, and job training to help unwed mothers rise above poverty. Promoting everything, in short, but the thing that is missing: lasting, healthy marriage in low-income communities.

In less backward states, leaders aren't waiting for Congress to take action to address this important social problem. Gov. Frank Keating in Oklahoma has laid out an innovative marriage initiative to promote marriage education and reduce marriage penalties in the welfare system. In New Mexico, the Governor's Commission on Marriage and Parenting, under the leadership of state Sen. Mark Boitano, recently released an eight-point marriage support plan, including retraining welfare case workers to deliver marriage education, a media campaign to highlight the benefits of marriage, and a short handbook, "Before you Divorce," to inform parents of the potential adverse economic, health and social impacts of divorce on their children.

Dr. Paul Hopkins, president of the New Mexico Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, is one "old-line liberal Democrat" who believes government has a place in promoting marriage. Partly, of course, it's his heartbreaking memories of kids he's worked with, like the little girl "who told me she wished she could cut herself in half, so that part of her could be with Mommy and part with Daddy."

To those who would say it's none of the government's business, Dr. Hopkins has this to say: "When we are abandoning our children or restricting their access to education or even food by our foolish choices, somebody has to stick their nose in and say, 'Hey, that isn't right.'"

Horn and Sawhill put it this way: "If welfare reform is to deliver on its promise to improve the well-being of children, the next phase of welfare reform must recognize the importance of reducing unmarried childbearing and increasing marriage."