Saving Our Children from Poverty: What the United States Can Learn from France

Article excerpt

Bergmann, Barbara R. Saving our children from poverty: What the United States can learn from France. New York, Russell Sage Foundation, 1996. xiv + 184 pp. Tables, index. ISBN 0-87154-114-9.

As the public debate on welfare reform continues in the United States, ever more American children are falling into poverty. Nearly one in four lives below the poverty line, a proportion which exceeds that found in any other industrialized country. Yet conservative thinkers and policy-makers in the United States continue to believe that the Government has little potential for dealing with social problems in a positive way, and that "government programs tend to make matters worse rather than better".

In this book Bergmann argues that the experiences of other countries contradict that belief. Citing the negative attitudes that have seeped into the current political discourse, she probes the American aversion to national assistance programmes and contrasts its social outcomes with the achievements of France's "particularly elaborate and generous set of programs designed to enhance child well-being". In her detailed comparison of the two countries' systems, she highlights the historical and other factors that explain major differences in policy. In particular she draws attention to France's pronatalist tradition -which has no equivalent in the United States - and to the negative image associated with the parents who are the direct beneficiaries of benefits for children in the United States. "The anger against poor children's parents is in part connected to the problem of race relations in the United States. Americans are acutely aware that blacks make up a disproportionately high share of the poor." More generally, Americans' lack of faith in the Federal Government, a growing resistance to taxation, and a belief that financial support encourages irresponsibility have weakened support for welfare programmes in the United States. This stands in sharp contrast to France's political commitment to child well-being.

However, the particular impact that such negative associations have on benefit programmes in the United States is partly due to the way the programmes themselves are structured. Most of the cash benefits the Government gives to families with children go to "welfare mothers" - single parents who have no job. A parent either works or receives welfare; there is very little in between. An American mother who chooses to work loses most of her cash benefits and receives no government assistance with child care. She also risks losing her medical insurance.

In France, by contrast, not only is per capita spending on child care, income supplementation and medical care 59 per cent higher than it is in the United States, but the system contains no disincentive to work or to maintain a marriage. …