From Welfare State to Police State

By Baskerville, Stephen | Independent Review, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

From Welfare State to Police State


Baskerville, Stephen, Independent Review


In the fall of 2006, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported that out-of-wedlock births had reached a record high (Hamilton, Martin, and Ventura 2006). At about the same time, new Census Bureau figures, as interpreted by the New York Times, indicated that married couples for the first time represent less than half the nation's households (Roberts 2006).

Following ten years of welfare reform that was supposed to discourage unmarried childbearing and encourage marriage and two-parent families, these reports are perplexing news, indeed. Whatever the budgetary savings, welfare reform has failed from the standpoint of the family. The figures "clearly show that the impact of welfare reform is now virtually zero," says Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, "and we are going back to the way things were before welfare reform" (qtd. in Wetzstein 2006).

It has been well known since at least the Moynihan report in 1965 that welfare serves as a disincentive to marriage and an incentive to divorce and unwed childbearing. Yet no explanation has been forthcoming for why cutting back on welfare has failed to reverse the trend. In fact, this failure raises far-reaching questions about our entire approach to what has become known as "family policy."

As implemented thus far, welfare reform is unlikely to make a large difference and remains a step behind the problem. The continued rise in out-of-wedlock births no longer proceeds only from low-income teenagers. Indeed, in terms of" this target population, welfare reform does appear to have had some impact. The NCHS reports that the birth rate among girls ages ten to seventeen dropped in 2005 to the lowest level on record. Births to unwed women in their late twenties, thirties, and forties, however, have risen and account for the now-record numbers. Inspired perhaps by books such as Rosanna Hertz's Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women Are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family (2006) and Peggy Drexler's Raising Boys Without Men (2005), or at least the subject of these books, these women are joining their low-income counterparts in moving beyond divorce to dispense with marriage altogether. Yet the children of divorce still almost double the 1.5 million out-of-wedlock births annually in the continued growth of single-parent homes. Given 4.1 million total births annually, this problem now touches virtually every family in America.

Because of these trends, the perception has become widespread that this seemingly intractable problem proceeds primarily from "culture" and that policy remedies are therefore pointless until the culture changes. James Q. Wilson throws up his hands and expresses the frustration and paralysis: "If you believe, as I do, in the power of culture, you will realize that there is very little one can do" (2002). Given such a response, the initiative will likely pass to congressional liberals who hope to roll back welfare reform altogether.

The George W. Bush administration's approach seems to be predicated on this same cultural assumption. Programs to encourage "healthy marriage" by building "relationship skills" and inculcating methods of "conflict resolution" and "child behavior management" are largely continuations of programs conceived during the Clinton administration to "promote responsible fatherhood." So far there is little evidence that these programs have any measurable effect on marriage or out-of-wedlock birth rates, and some observers question the wisdom of the federal government's operating family therapy (but see Birch et al. 2004). Financed by a small portion of welfare funds, these programs arguably serve, like welfare itself, as a form of political patronage, increasing the client population on the public payroll.

Although the role of culture should certainly not be discounted, the problem is also driven by federal policies and funding that welfare reform did not remedy and may even have exacerbated. …

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