For obvious reasons, poverty policy has concentrated most of its attention on single mothers and their children. The original New Deal–era Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) was intended to help widowed mothers by providing them with cash benefits. AFDC’s 1996 successor, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), was also largely a female-centered policy, reforming welfare by putting time limits on benefits and diverting recipients—most of them single mothers—into jobs. In terms of reducing welfare dependency and encouraging work, it was a big success, nowhere more than in New York City, where Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s own innovations actually preceded the federal law. Between March 1995 and July 2002, the city experienced a 60 percent decline in the welfare rolls. Even better, poverty rates for single mothers and their children sank to record lows.
Low-income men were another story. They became, in the words of social scientists, increasingly “detached” from the workforce—and increasingly poor. Work is key to keeping men out of poverty, just as it is for women, but by 2005, a mere 16 percent of men below the poverty line were working full-time and year-round, and the majority reported no work at all. Making matters worse, a large proportion of low-income men were noncustodial fathers. Thanks to federal laws strengthening paternity establishment, the proportion of known fathers in cases of unmarried births soared from 23 percent in the early 1980s to well over 70 percent in 2004. But given the high rates of nonwork among poor men, child-support collection receipts did not grow nearly as much. Not surprisingly, it seems, men without jobs don’t support their children.
Yet welfare reform’s methods for encouraging moms to work don’t apply to dads, since, for the most part, they aren’t dependent on government benefits in the first place. The puzzle facing policy experts, then, is how to entice detached fathers into the workforce, where they can begin to build stable lives for themselves and also help support the children they have sired.
NYU political scientist Larry Mead has an idea about that. Mead has observed that many detached low-income fathers actually are “attached”—to the government, at least—through two channels: the parole system and child-support enforcement agencies. Yet these groups do little to encourage legitimate employment and sometimes actively discourage it. The criminal-justice system often requires parolees to work, but it tends to hassle them more about technical parole violations than about finding a job. And low-income men can find themselves facing hefty payments and arrears for child support that impose a huge tax on possible earnings. Small wonder a lot of them prefer to avoid an on-the-books paycheck.
Some states are already trying to overcome such disincentives. In 2005, Texas created a pilot program called Noncustodial Parent Choices, which links child-support enforcement, state workforce-development boards, and family-court judges. Men who are failing to pay child support receive a stark choice: make a payment, participate in workforce services, or go to jail. According to a quasi-experimental study by the Lyndon Johnson School of Public Affairs, the approach significantly increased men’s employment rates as well as child-support payments; it also reduced TANF receipts among custodial mothers. The program is now expanding statewide. Michigan already has a statewide program in which state and local employment and parole agencies oversee the successful integration into the workplace of the 10,000 prisoners released in the state annually. The program is cleverly, and probably accurately, billed as a public-safety initiative, and early evaluations do show a decline in recidivism. But it’s also an employment program and one likely to increase child-support collection over time.
New York City has also made some promising moves. In addition to NYC DADS, a public-relations program to increase awareness of the importance of fathers, Human Resources Administration commissioner Robert Doar has revamped child-support enforcement to negotiate unrealistic arrears; he has also expanded job-placement programs for parolees. In 2008, he increased the city’s child-support receipts to record levels. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has called on Congress to extend the Earned Income Tax Credit—an incentive to work currently targeted chiefly at low-income custodial parents—to men who work regular hours and who stand in compliance with their child support.
But while the city has promoted work, it needs to find ways to enforce it, too. Voluntary job-training programs have had indifferent results in part because clients’ motivation remains weak. As Mead points out, successful approaches to welfare reform both “help and hassle.” Similarly, getting men into the workforce will require a major shift in bureaucratic and judicial culture, one that makes work a requirement wherever possible, just as it was with TANF. That means getting city bureaucracies outside the Human Resources Administration on board. Family-court judges, too, must be willing to threaten sanctions for nonwork.
Work-resistant community agencies have already come out in force during the economic downturn. At an April 29 meeting of the City Council General Welfare Committee, activists waved signs saying back to work doesn’t work! Yet the stakes for getting more poor men into the workplace couldn’t be higher. Men who work more hours earn more income and therefore pay more child support. More important still is that men who pay more child support have more contact with their kids. No doubt this is partly because guys with a regular paycheck have higher self-esteem and perhaps better relationships with their children’s mothers. But it’s also likely that men who learn the qualities that make a good worker—orderliness, trustworthiness, self-motivation—will make better fathers. Getting the men working may not create more intact families, but it could lead to something pretty important: more involved dads.