Marriage, Not Work Only, Fuels Real Welfare Reform

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Thursday, March 7, 2002

Marriage, Not Work Only, Fuels Real Welfare Reform
By the time Congress began debating welfare reform in earnest in the early 1990’s, the discussion up to then had tended to focus on the same issues-especially work requirements and job training. Welfare reform was seen almost exclusively as an issue of getting low-income people employed. Without question jobs are a major component of true welfare reform, but employment does not address the underlying problem, the issue that had been driving the enormous increase in welfare dependency since the 1960’s. Namely, the increase in out-of-wedlock childbearing. About one third of children today are born to unmarried mothers.

Most families receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the primary welfare program and forerunner to the current Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, are headed by never-married single mothers. For most of these families it is the birth of a child out-of-wedlock that precipitates their entry onto the AFDC rolls in the first place, and such families tend to remain on the welfare rolls for long periods of time. Further, children in those families are worse off than children from intact families according to most any conceivable measure of well being: emotional stability, educational and economic achievement, early sexual activity, substance abuse, to name a few.

All of this was certainly clear to people following the welfare issue long before the early 1990’s, and it became more clear to the general public as a result of the debate leading up to passage in 1996 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA). Traditional welfare advocacy groups at first vilified those who dared to link welfare dependency to irresponsible behavior and to suggest that, in order to be truly effective, welfare reform must address that behavior. The debate was often heated. But as a result, the focus of the debate shifted for a time to include a discussion of out-of-wedlock childbearing and the link between marriage and family breakdown and welfare dependency. This also helped engender an ongoing national debate about the crucial role of marriage in combating poverty. In many ways, however, the welfare reform debate continues to focus on solving problems that have already occurred rather than on preventing the conditions that trap people in welfare dependency. Current discussions of welfare reform tend to focus on work participation rates rather than out-of-wedlock childbearing.

The news about work participation is certainly good. The most recent figures, released at a conference this week sponsored by the Women in the Economy project of the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), indicate that between August 1996, when the welfare reform work provisions took effect, and September 2001, the number of families on welfare dropped by 52%. Welfare participation levels are at their lowest point since the 1960’s, and the proportion of single mothers at work has risen dramatically. Significantly, passage of welfare reform appears to be the determining factor, much more so than the booming ’90’s economy. According to the NCPA report, TANF, the program created by the 1996 welfare reform legislation, “accounts for more than half of the decline in welfare participation since 1996 and more than 60% of the rise in employment among single mothers.” Further, welfare participation has dropped across the board, regardless of age, educational attainment and race. The largest gains in work participation-71% of the increase-were among single mothers age 18-29.

This progress is encouraging, since it demonstrates that many former welfare recipients have begun to break the cycle of welfare dependency and to assume responsibility for themselves and their children. However, the cycle of out-of-wedlock childbearing continues. Although it has dropped among unmarried teenagers, it continues unabated among women in their 20’s, and it has risen recently among women in their early 20’s. Work participation efforts without prevention efforts that emphasize marriage as a prerequisite to childbearing are not likely to have a lasting effect on the problem of welfare dependency.

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