THE WELFARE DISCUSSION
(Reprint from The Christian Science Monitor, December 29, 1994)
WE REALLY NEED
By Stephanie Cooniz
Democrats have had a field day with Republican proposals to cut unwed mothers from public assistance and
send their children to orphanages. In 1992, Republicans attacked the Democratic platform statement that
"people," not governments, raise children, suggesting that the choice of words revealed a conscious attempt to
devalue parents. How satisfying for Democrats to now be able to charge that Republicans want institutions,
not parents, to raise children.
It's a nice retort, but too easy. And that about sums up the whole debate over teenage mothers, welfare reform,
and family values. Charges and counter-charges about welfare queens versus Simon Legrees obscure a point
neither political party wants to grapple with: Our modern welfare system emerged as a substitute for the Full
Employment Act proposed by the United Auto Workers in the 1940s.
The consequences of America's refusal to commit to investing in jobs for all were hidden for years by rising
wages and job security for union-protected workers, government subsidized educational expansion for the
middle class, and a policy of coercion and exclusion directed at unprotected workers.
But the postwar system is now in shambles. Real wages are falling for all but the richest 20 percent of
Americans. Job security is disappearing. Most families need two incomes to get by. And more and more
people can't form or sustain families under the friction of a fast-paced consumer culture rubbing against
economic deprivation and community decay.
Focus on AFDC
The fact that debates over how to address these real issues focus on Aid to Families With Dependent Children
(AFDC), a program that absorbs 1 percent of the federal budget, typifies the manipulative nature of political
Certainly, the orphanage proposal is chilling in its assumption that impoverished young mothers are
automatically bad parents. It is also reckless in its claim that private charities can save taxpayers the expense of
running such institutions. But the Democratic response is opportunistic. President Clinton's announcement that
"there is no substitute" for parents cedes too much to the sentimentalization of biological ties that often inhibits
courts from terminating parental rights in cases of abuse or severe neglect.
Similarly, Democrats who delight in pointing out that orphanages would be "even" more expensive than AFDC
payments reinforce the idea that the government's aim should be to cut immediate costs rather than invest
effectively in the productivity of future generations.
This debate didn't have to be so shallow. In 192, Republicans alienated millions of Americans with their slurs
against nontraditional families. Clinton won because he promised to address people's urgent concerns about the
decay of cities, the loss of stable jobs, the rise in work hours for most families, and the declining educational
prospects for youth.
Yet once in office, the Democrats tallied up the political and economic costs of significant social restructuring
and decided they'd been overly bold. If it wasn't the economy, but single mothers all along, there was less need
for risky fights over the redistribution of resources, investments, and government programs. Soon the main
Clinton administration think tank was pushing what was Vice President Dan Quayle's simple-minded but
deliciously inexpensive formula to solve America's urban crisis: Marriage is "the best antipoverty program for
Within months of inauguration, liberal columnists were proclaiming a new "bipartisan consensus" that "Dan
Quayle was right," Leading Democrats increasingly endorsed the notion that unwed motherhood was the
driving force behind crime, drugs, poverty, school failure, government fiscal crisis, and middle-class economic
Nothing brings politicians together more quickly than an easy target, and what target could be easier than single
teenage mothers on welfare? For two years, politicians have conjured up ever more lurid images of unwed
welfare moms having more and more children, bankrupting hardworking taxpayers, and spending most of their
monthly checks on the cocaine trade that leads their fatherless boys to rob, kidnap, and murder decent citizens.
Democrats should not have been surprised that the more these images dominated public discussion, the better
the Republicans did in the polls. Their self-righteous claims to be more compassionate than Newt Gingrich
have done nothing to challenge right-wing distortions of the facts or to counter the ridiculous notion that
marriage is a substitute for antipoverty programs, quality child care, and parent-friendly work policies.
The Chicken and egg
Yes, single-parent families are more likely to be poor, but they are not the only victims of our changing
economy. there is also the chicken and egg question, here. Poor couples are twice as likely to divorce as more
affluent ones. Jobless individuals are three to four times less likely to marry. And teens who live in areas of
high unemployment and inferior school systems are six to seven times more likely to become unwed parents
than more fortunate teens. Dozens of research studies show that the most effective deterrent to early
childbearing is access to among other things, good schools and steady jobs.
Even is we reunited every child in the United States with both biological parents, two-thirds of the children who
are poor today would still be poor, according to US Census figures. Persistent poverty during the first five
years of life leaves children with an IQ deficit of more than nine points, regardless of family structure. Children
who have been exposed to lead are seven times less likely to graduate from high school and six times more
likely to have a reading disability than other children.
A recent survey in New York City explodes the bipartisan mythology about unwed motherhood and spiraling
welfare costs. Only one in four poor households in the country's largest city is headed by a single-parent, while
welfare spending, adjusted for inflation, has declined by 30 percent since 1970. Medicaid, which goes primarily
to providers of medical care for the aged and disabled, accounts for the majority of the city's welfare
As for the reverse notion that welfare causes unwed motherhood, this too is mostly myth. Out-of-wedlock
childbearing is lowest in the states with the highest welfare benefits,. And sociologist Mark Rank reports that
the average mother on welfare has 1.9 children, fewer than her counterpart who is not on welfare.
But politicians prefer to battle on the turf of old prejudices and falsehoods than to move into higher ground.
It's easier to debate what to do about slum mothers or deadbeat dads than to figure out what to do about
slumlords or deadbeat corporations. For the public, though, the result can only be frustration, more attempts to
throw the rascals out only to find the next batch is just as useless, and more temptation to seek scapegoats.
Stephanie Coontz, a historian at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., wrote "The Way We
Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap" (HarperCollins).
Copyright © 1996. The Light Party.