Magazine article Insight on the News

Root Causes of Social Ills Lie in Welfare

Magazine article Insight on the News

Root Causes of Social Ills Lie in Welfare

Article excerpt

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, social scientist Charles Murray called for ending the current welfare system. Murray's suggestion had an explosive effect and set off a chain reaction that in a dozen weeks has transformed the welfare debate.

Here is what President Clinton said in a recent interview about welfare's fiercest and most prominent critic: "[Charles Murray] did the country a great service. I mean, he and I have often disagreed, but I think his analysis is essentially right. ... There's no question that [ending welfare payments to single mothers] would work. The question is ... is it morally right?"

Clinton's firm embrace of the Murray analysis means that the intellectual debate over welfare policy is essentially over; we are now debating the relative merits of changing the system versus dismantling it.

That reform of this magnitude is even possible can be explained by three developments. The first is widespread acceptance of overwhelming empirical evidence: The current welfare system is a complete failure. During the last three decades, we have spent enormous sums on welfare programs, and what do we have to show for it? An underclass that is much larger, more violent and more poorly educated, and that consists of many more single-parent families.

Second, experts in the field have acknowledged that a strong link exists between social pathologies, exploding rates of illegitimacy and welfare payments to single mothers. By the end of this decade, according to the most reliable projections, 40 percent of all American births and 80 percent of minority births will be illegitimate. These numbers have frightening social implications. Welfare may not cause illegitimacy, but welfare does make illegitimacy economically viable. There is hardly any question anymore that illegitimacy rates would fall -- probably dramatically -- if payments were stopped under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program. Welfare is illegitimacy's economic life-support system.

The third development is the widespread agreement on an important moral principle: Having children out of wedlock is wrong -- not simply economically unwise for the individuals involved or a financial burden on society -- but morally wrong. Even Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, a woman of impeccable liberal credentials, said in a recent interview, "I don't like to put this in moral terms, but I do believe that having children out of wedlock is just wrong."

Unfortunately, it is not at all clear that politicians, including most Republicans, are willing to propose legislation that is intellectually consistent with these arguments and analyses. Most of the bills on the table miss the essential point of welfare reform. The point is not to ensure tougher work provisions and job training; rather, it is to pursue, root and branch, a system that fosters illegitimacy and its attendant social pathologies.

Republicans should propose in this session legislation that stops welfare benefits to anyone who has a child out of wedlock. …

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