Monday, April 17, 2006

How Welfare Reform Worked

Kay S. Hymowitz at "City Journal" says: "Though successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, welfare reform left key problems unsolved." Here is her summary.

Ending welfare dependency, then, is not likely to turn poor mothers and fathers into child-centered soccer parents. Though researchers haven't found that reform has had any adverse effect on children, they haven't found much positive impact, either. Jason DeParle's book and others that look at the lives of poor families after reform give a pretty good idea why. Just because a woman has to be at a job at 8 each morning doesn't mean that her child's father has become a paragon. For that matter, just because she's following the dictates of an alarm clock doesn't mean that she is envisioning a better life for her children.

In Adrien Nicole LeBlanc's Random Family, the boyfriend of one working ex–welfare mother minds her children while he bags crack cocaine in the kitchen. All three of the children of one of DeParle's protagonists, Angie, have quit high school. Her eldest son describes his aunt's boyfriend, a drug dealer, as his role model. As a teenager, her daughter began spending time with a family friend who happens to be a prostitute. When DeParle questions Angie about why she doesn't try to discourage the friendship, the mother of three huffs, "I'm not supposed to let my kids visit her 'cause that's her chosen profession? . . . You don't judge people about stuff like that!" Today Angie's daughter is 22, with no husband, two children, and a job as a checkout clerk. It's better than being on welfare, sure, but not much for the history books.

What reformers especially didn't factor into their marriage visions was that PRWORA, like so much of American social welfare policy, had little to say to the prospective husbands. While experts sometimes overstate the shortage of marriageable men, it is true that employment levels for men with a high school education have been declining since the 1980s. The situation is especially dire for blacks. At the same time that poor black single mothers were setting off to work in record numbers, the employment rates of their would-be husbands barely budged, despite the boom economy of the late 1990s and despite their rising education levels. (These numbers don't even take into account the 21 percent of non-college-educated young black men who are incarcerated.) By 2000, employment rates for black men were around 25 percent lower than for whites and Hispanics.
...and Black Child Poverty Declined..

Put all of this together—low-income single mothers, idle (and sometimes imprisoned) men, children with no vision of a way out (and no help from their schools on that score)—and you get a group only slightly different from the welfare families we had before: the struggling, working-single-mother family. So far, it seems better than its predecessor. Life in many inner-city neighborhoods has improved noticeably from its nadir in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Paul Jargowsky and Isabel Sawhill recently published a paper called "The Decline of the Underclass," showing a sharp decline in census "underclass tracts"—areas defined by their thick concentration of underclass behaviors, including welfare dependency, dropping out of school, and crime. If neighborhoods are improving, part of the reason, though it's impossible to calculate how much, is welfare reform. But at least as big a reason is that many of the most dangerous people have been sent away, so crime has gone down.

So what do policymakers do next? First, TANF, which Congress has just reauthorized for five years only—after several years of dickering over child care and work rules—needs to become a permanent fixture of American policy. The Left will always use reauthorization debates as a stage to push for more funding for day care and a higher minimum wage—policies that do nothing to change the fragile cultural landscape in which the single-mother family struggles. To make that transformation, more men have to become attached to work and to marriage, rather than to crime or prison. However, unlike with women who were dependent on welfare checks, policymakers have fewer levers to change the culture of unskilled, uneducated men.

As for the revival of wedlock, aside from as yet unproven marriage education programs that will reach only a small number of people anyway, social policy can play only a limited role. What's needed instead is a blitz of marriage talk from the churches, from the black leadership, from the political class, from celebrities like Bill Cosby, from radio and television spots—from anyone and everyone who might get the ear of the welfare population. This campaign will not lead poor mothers and their boyfriends to surge into wedding chapels; most never planned to raise children together, and they have pretty dismal long-term prospects. Rather, the marriage blitz needs to speak to a new generation of young people still able to rethink the possible outlines of their lives.

Policy has given the culture a nudge, but now the culture has to change itself.


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