Welfare mothers are people too

Posted: Mar 11, 2003 12:00 AM

Memo to liberals: Black single mothers living in the inner city are people too.

That's the message of a new study published in the journal Science magazine showing that single mothers forced from the public dole by the welfare reform of 1996 are supporting themselves with jobs and competently raising their children -- a picture in stark contrast to the forecasts of doom made by welfare-reform opponents.

Once off the rolls, welfare mothers were supposed to collapse into a haze of laziness and incompetence, suffering from their incapacity for that most basic of human activities -- work. Their children were supposed to be traumatized by the mere suggestion that their moms do something productive. And they all would have to limp pathetically back onto public assistance.

Most opponents of reform missed -- thanks to their own good intentions and their focus on the "systemic" factors creating inner city dependency -- the insulting premises of the welfare system. They should foreswear those premises forever now that former welfare moms have so outperformed liberals' sorry expectations for them.

Opponents of welfare reform argued that it would increase poverty, since they didn't expect former welfare moms to actually work. Instead, according to the Science magazine study, welfare recipients who left the dole and entered the job market nearly doubled the income of their households. Almost all households where mothers went to work were lifted out of poverty.

Opponents had also said that reform would stunt the emotional and intellectual development of children as their mothers got chased out of the home. The Science magazine study detects no such effect in preschool children, but finds that adolescents are actually better off.

Who would have thought that living in a household with a higher income, in which the breadwinner is working and providing an example of self-discipline, would lead to less anxiety, less behavioral problems and better schoolwork among adolescents? Well, anyone who thought children of welfare mothers would respond to their environment in an entirely common-sensical, normal way.

The Science magazine study makes one truly extraordinary finding: When welfare mothers went to work but had less time to spend with their teenagers, they made the time and spent only 45 minutes less a day with them. "They cut back on personal, social and educational activities that did not involve their children," the study says.

This isn't really extraordinary at all, however, since it tracks with what research has shown about what all mothers do when they enter the work force. Welfare mothers, in other words, are just behaving like mothers.

"They're doing the right thing -- they're working. And they know there could be a problem with their kids, so they're giving up a lot," says Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution, a longtime welfare-reform advocate. "We were never trying to demonize these moms. We were saying these are capable people; you just have to give them the right rules."

While the Science magazine study rebuts the gloom-and-doom predictions, there is still a long way to go. After several generations of welfare, it will take years to re-establish a thoroughgoing ethic of work in inner cities. And there is no substitute for a revival of the traditional family structure -- work is important, but so are dads.

To that end, a reauthorization of welfare reform pending in Congress would advance the work requirements of the 1996 bill and also undertake steps to encourage marriage. Democratic opponents, having learned nothing from the past several years, are still offering alternatives to the left of the 1996 reform. "The Democrats have not changed their position on welfare in 15 years," says the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, an architect of the 1996 bill.

Fortunately, welfare mothers themselves are in better touch with reality. The Science magazine study finds that their self-esteem "often significantly increased" when they went to work, showing that welfare moms know what their purported defenders still don't necessarily know -- that work is better than dependency.