Teen Mothers and the Revolving Welfare Door

Teen Mothers and the Revolving Welfare Door

Teen Mothers and the Revolving Welfare Door

Teen Mothers and the Revolving Welfare Door


Kathleen Mullan Harris reveals the relationship between black teenage mothers and the welfare system. Does welfare encourage them to maintain a life of dependency? How does education, marriage, and employment impact this relationship? How do these women escape dependency? Harris's account is based on Frank Furstenberg's Baltimore study, which began in the 1960s and has continued for more than 20 years. This study traces the paths of these mothers and provides commentary on the changes in the welfare system and the way society perceives welfare recipients. Not only are job prospects worse today but so are welfare benefits, and the abortion rate has risen drastically.


This marvelously informative study about the welfare and work careers of teenage mothers is being published at a propitious moment. It is being sent to press at the very point that the system of "welfare as we know it," to borrow President Clinton's phrase, is presumably coming to an end. A near consensus that our system of public assistance is pernicious has been achieved in this country. Oddly, this consensus has been reached without the benefit of social science evidence -- or should I say despite the evidence from social science research?

Americans have been persuaded by politicians, policymakers, and journalists that welfare not only is a bad idea, it has become a bad word. Even its clients and beneficiaries have learned to distrust and despise the welfare system -- its bureaucracy, its rules, the stigma it brings, and its meager benefits. Little wonder that almost no one stands up for this remnant of a New Deal--era program that was never designed to serve the needs of single mothers, much less poor families (Gordon 1994). From its very inception, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was designed not so much to help working women who were single but to ensure that single women with young children (primarily widows when the legislation was enacted) did not have to work. A noble and perhaps even sound idea at the time, but a notion seriously outdated by social and demographic changes in the latter third of this century.

Designed to remove women from the perils of labor, the program came to be universally distrusted first because it was seen as discouraging poor women from marrying, then because it discouraged them from both marrying and working, and finally because it encouraged them to have babies in order to remain single and idle.

No one deserves more credit for selling this message to the American people than Charles Murray, whose book Losing Ground published in 1984 was widely heralded as a rational argument for revising welfare. Murray's argument effectively tossed the gauntlet at social scientists to disprove that welfare was not largely responsible for the dissolution of marriage and the rise of poverty among African Americans that occurred from the 1960s onward.

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