As we Americans enter the last years of the twentieth century, we have every reason to rejoice about our condition but little inclination to do so. Despite widespread prosperity and a generally healthy economy, despite the absence of any immediate foreign threat and even many serious rivals, despite extraordinary progress in civil rights, personal health, and school enrollment—despite all this and more, we feel that there is something profoundly wrong with our society. Not with our own lives—the great majority of Americans are satisfied with their conditions and prospects—but with the conditions and prospects of our communal life.

That communal life is thought to have many deficiencies, including crime, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, and the countless incivilities of daily life. What these problems have in common, in the eyes of most Americans, is that they result from the weakening of the family. The strength of Americans’ conviction on this matter is great enough to induce leaders of almost every party and ideology to endorse, with varying degrees of sincerity, this diagnosis. The opposition to family values has either gone underground or is busily seeking to redefine those values so that their pursuit will not be too inconvenient. When Dan Quayle and Bill Clinton gave similar speeches only a few days apart, something important changed. For the moment.

Having arrived at something approaching a consensus, we must now face the fact that we don’t know what to do about the problem. Again, the American people are well ahead of their leaders on this matter: they doubt that government can do much of anything, they are not optimistic that any other institution can do better, and they are skeptical that there will be a spontaneous regeneration of decency, commitment, and personal responsibility.

Our leaders must pretend they know what to do, but the people are not fooled. Washington passes a crime bill composed in equal parts of useful small steps, uninformed good intentions, and symbolic arm waving, and public skepticism grows. The president promises to end welfare as we know it but submits a bill that will at best change slightly a policy we know all too well, and the public ignores it.

Let me confess at the outset that I do not know what ought to be done and assert that I do not think anyone else knows either. But I think that we can find out, at least to the degree that feeble human reason is capable of understanding some of the most profound features of the human condition. What we may find out, of course, is that we have created a society that can no longer sustain a strong family life no matter what steps we take. I am not convinced of that, for the very people who express the deepest pessimism are themselves leading, in most cases, decent lives amid strong human attachments and competent and caring families.

What we worry about is the underclass. There has always been an underclass and always will be one. But of late its ranks have grown, and its members have acquired greater power to destroy their own children and inflict harm beyond their own ranks. The means for doing so—gun, drugs, and automobiles—were supplied to them by our inventive and prosperous economy. We must either control more rigorously those means or alter more powerfully the lives of those who possess them. I wish to discuss the latter, because the public is rightly dubious about how great a gain in public safety can be achieved by the legal methods at our disposal and is properly indignant about the harm to innocent children that will result from neglecting the processes by which the underclass reproduces itself.

The great debate is whether, how, and at what cost we can change lives—if not the lives of this generation then those of the next. There are three ways of framing the problem.

First, the structural: The good manufacturing jobs that once existed in inner cities have moved to the periphery, leaving behind decent men struggling to get by without the work that once conferred both respect and money. Their place is now being taken by streetwise young men who, finding no meaningful work, have abandoned the search for it and scorn the ethic of work.

Second, the rational: Welfare benefits (AFDC along with Medicaid, subsidized housing, and food stamps) have become so generous as to make the formation of stable, two-parent families irrational or unnecessary. Such benefits have induced young women wanting babies and their own home to acquire both at public expense and have convinced young men that sexual conquest need not entail personal responsibilities.

Third, the cultural: Traditional child rearing and family life can no longer compete with or bring under prudent control a culture of radical self-indulgence and oppositional defiance fostered by drugs, television, video games, street gangs, and predatory sexuality. When middle-class and working-class families were able to move out of inner-city neighborhoods, they took with them not only their financial capital but also their social capital—those attitudes, activities, and commitments that once restrained self-indulgence and socialized young people.

A visitor from another planet might say that all three factors have been at work and all need changing. But public debate tends to emphasize one or another theory and thus one or another set of solutions, because people define problems so as to make them amenable to solutions that they favor for ideological or moral reasons. In political discourse, we embrace strategies first and then look for problems they might solve in much the same spirit as a person holding a hammer looks for anything resembling a nail. Here, roughly, is what each analysis implies.

First, structural solutions: Create jobs and job-training programs in inner cities by means of either tax-advantaged enterprise zones or government-subsidized employment programs. Or else facilitate the relocation of the inner-city poor to places where jobs can be found and supplement the incomes of those who have low-paying jobs by means of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Second, rationalist solutions: Cut or abolish AFDC benefits, or require work in exchange for welfare, or both. Make the formation of two-parent households more attractive than single parenthood and restore work as the only way for the physically able to acquire money.

Third, cultural solutions: Alter the inner-city ethos by private redemptive movements, supported by a system of shelters or group homes in which at-risk children and their young mothers can be given familial care and adult supervision in safe and drug-free settings.

I have my own preferences among these alternatives, but it is less important to say what they are than to emphasize that I do not know which explanation is correct and thus which strategy will work. Because so many people embrace a single strategy as a way of denying legitimacy to alternative ones and to their underlying philosophies, let me briefly sketch the uncertainties and inadequacies of each taken alone.

First, the structural strategy. The evidence that links family dissolution with the distribution of jobs is uncertain or weak. Some people, noticing that jobs have moved to the periphery, board buses and follow them; other people, noticing the same thing, stay home and sell drugs. For example, Latinos in Los Angeles search actively for jobs that require 90-minute bus rides and long waits on street corners and do so even though those who are undocumented aliens risk the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service by gathering in conspicuous groups. Even if a serious job mismatch exists, it will not easily be overcome by enterprise zones if the costs of crime in the neighborhoods are high and cannot be compensated for by very low labor costs or very high customer demand. Moreover, in scanning potential workers, employers will rely on the most visible cues of reliability and skill, and they will use ethnicity, dress, manner, speech, and even place of residence as cues so long as they are useful proxies for qualities like dependability and trainability. No legal system can suppress the role of these cues, because they have substantial economic value. We know that firms that open inner-city establishments and screen potential employees will often bring in workers from outside the area because their work habits are better.

There is some evidence that people can be relocated to peripheral communities with benefits to themselves and no significant costs to the host neighborhoods. But if the program is publicly funded, the bureaucratic screening must be rigorous enough to approximate the market screening that occurs when mortgage lenders and landlords check the background of their applicants.

Otherwise, the resistance to such relocation, now intense in many cities, will become insuperable as the receiving neighborhoods experience rising rates of crime, gang activity, and drug abuse. I am skeptical that bureaucratic screening carried on under political directives can approximate market screening.

Finally, neither job-creation programs nor family relocation programs are likely to have much effect on the large number of young men who have dropped out of the labor force, who ignore paternal responsibilities, and who are already part of the oppositional culture.

Second, the rationalist strategy. After years of denying that the level of AFDC payments had any effect on childbearing, many scholars now find that states with higher payments tend to be ones in which more babies are born to welfare recipients. And when one expands the definition of welfare to include not only AFDC but also Medicaid, food stamps, and subsidized housing, increases in welfare are strongly correlated with increases in illegitimate births from the early 1960s to about 1980. At that point, the value of the welfare package in real dollars flattens out, but the illegitimacy ratio continues to rise.

There remain, however, several important puzzles in the connection between welfare and childbearing. One is the existence of great differences in illegitimacy rates across ethnic groups facing similar circumstances. Since the Civil War at least, blacks have had higher illegitimacy rates than whites, even though federal welfare programs were not invented until 1935. Charles Murray has shown that the probability that a baby will be born to a single woman is more than twice as high for blacks as for whites after controlling for age, education, and economic status. David Hayes-Bautista compared poor blacks with poor Mexican-Americans in California. He found that Mexican-American children were much more likely than black children to grow up in a two-parent family and that poor Mexican-American families were only one-fifth as likely as black ones to be on welfare. Even among blacks, Murray has shown that the illegitimacy rate is rather low in states such as Idaho, Montana, Maine, and New Hampshire (even though these states have relatively high AFDC payments) and quite high in the Deep South (even though these states have very low AFDC payments). Clearly, some important cultural factor is at work, one that has deep historical roots and that may vary with the size of the community and the character of the surrounding culture.

Despite these poorly understood cultural differences, there can be little doubt that ending welfare, cold turkey, would probably have a big effect on the behavior of welfare recipients. But what effect? Young women might have fewer babies, but would young men be more likely to assume paternal responsibilities for the babies that remain? Would children be raised better and more carefully protected from the destructive influences of drugs and gangs? And if we enforce a work requirement as a condition of welfare, will this improve child-rearing practices? Do we wish the young mothers of two-year-olds to be working? The group that we most want to see brought into the workforce—young males—would not be affected by a welfare-linked work requirement. They would be free to go on, in Elijah Anderson's graphic phrase,  seeking "sex without commitment and babies without responsibility."

Third, the cultural strategy. There are many efforts in many cities, by public and private agencies, individuals, and churches, to persuade young men to be fathers and not just impregnators, to help drug addicts and alcoholics, and to teach parenting skills to teenage mothers. Robert Woodson has campaigned tirelessly to attract more attention and support to these efforts, such as the House of Umoja in Philadelphia. Some have been evaluated, and a few show signs of positive effects. Programs such as the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Michigan; the Parent-Child Development Center in Houston; the Family Development Research Project in Syracuse, New York; and the Yale Child Welfare Project in New Haven, Connecticut, seem to have had positive and lasting effects on the children who went through them—better behavior, lessened delinquency, more success in school.

Myron Magnet and I have both endorsed the idea of requiring young, unmarried mothers to live in group homes with their children under adult supervision as a condition of receiving public assistance. I have suggested that we might revive an institution that was common earlier in this century but has lapsed into disuse of late—the boarding school (sometimes, mistakenly, called an orphanage) for the children of mothers who cannot cope. At one time, such schools provided homes and educations for over 100,000 youngsters.

Though I confess I am attracted to the idea of creating wholly new environments in which to raise the next generation of at-risk children, I must also confess that I don't know if it will work. The programs that we know to be successful, like the Perry Preschool Project, are small, experimental efforts led by dedicated staff. Can large versions of the same thing work when run by the average counselor or teacher? And even these successes predated the arrival of crack cocaine on the streets of our big cities; can even the best programs salvage people from that viciously destructive drug? There is evidence that such therapeutic communities as Phoenix House can salvage people who stay in them long enough.

Though I would hope that efforts to broaden this system of alternative families would rely on private organizations using public funds, I am aware that the best private institutions are not likely to do as well as even a below-average family. But unlike the fierce partisans of family preservation, I believe that decent institutions can sometimes do better than the worst families.

If these three alternatives or something like them are what is available to us, how do we decide what to do? Before trying to answer that question, let me assert three precepts that ought to shape the answer. First precept: Our overriding goal ought to be to save the children. Other goals—reducing the cost of welfare, discouraging illegitimacy, and preventing long-term welfare dependency—are all worthy. But they should be secondary to the goal of improving the life prospects of the next generation.

Second precept: Nobody knows how to achieve this goal on a large scale. The debate that has begun about welfare reform is largely based on untested assumptions, ideological posturing, and perverse priorities. We are told that worker training and job placement will reduce the welfare rolls, but we know that worker training and job placement have so far had at best very modest effects on welfare rolls. And few advocates of worker training tell us what happens to children whose mothers are induced or compelled to work, other than to assure us that somebody will supply day care. We are told by others that a mandatory work requirement, whether or not it leads to more mothers working, will end the cycle of dependency. We don’t know that it will. Moreover, it is fathers whose behavior we most want to change, and nobody has explained how cutting off welfare to mothers will make biological fathers act like real fathers. We are told that ending AFDC will reduce illegitimacy, but that is, at best, an informed guess. Some people produced many illegitimate children long before welfare existed, and others in similar circumstances now produce none, even though welfare has become quite generous. I have pointed out that group homes and boarding schools once provided decent lives for the children of stable, working-class parents who faced unexpected adversity, but I do not know whether such institutions will work for the children of underclass parents enmeshed in a cycle of dependency and despair.

Third precept: The federal government cannot have a meaningful family policy for the nation, and it ought not to try. Not only does it not know and cannot learn from "experts" what to do; whatever it thinks it ought to do, it will try to do in the worst possible way: uniformly, systematically, politically, and ignorantly. Today official Washington rarely bothers even to give lip service to the tattered principle of states’ rights. Even when it allows the states some freedom, it does so only at its own pleasure, reserving the right to set terms, issue waivers, and attach conditions. Welfare politics in Washington is driven by national advocacy groups that often derive their energy from the ideological message on which they rely to attract money and supporters. And Washington will find ways either to deny public money to churches (even though they are more deeply engaged in human redemption than any state department of social welfare) or to enshroud those churches that do get public money with constraints that vitiate the essential mission of a church.

The clear implication of these three precepts when applied to the problem we face is that we turn the task of, and the money for, rebuilding lives—welfare payments, housing subsidies, the lot—over to the cities and states and the private agencies to be found there, subject only to two conditions. First, the minimum but fundamental principles of equal protection must apply, and, second, every major new initiative must be evaluated by independent observers operating in accordance with accepted scientific canons.

Some states or counties may end AFDC as we know it; others may impose a mandatory work requirement; a few may require welfare recipients to turn their checks over to the group homes in which they must reside or the boarding schools their children must attend. Some may give the money to private agencies and charge them with worker training, parent training, and preschool education. In some places there may be efforts, as there have been in Chicago, to relocate welfare recipients to the periphery; in others public housing projects will be turned over to their tenant-owners. And amid all this hubbub, nosy scholars will poke around, funded by something akin to the National Science Foundation, trying to find out which programs actually help children and at what cost.

If the federal government cannot do the job, why do I think states can do any better? For two reasons. First, there are 50 of them. Just by the laws of chance alone, we are more likely to have a few smart and daring governors than one smart and daring president. Wisconsin has elected Tommy Thompson, Massachusetts Bill Weld; the United States has not managed to elect either and is not likely to do so. And because there are 50 states, they must compete—for residents, employers, and good credit ratings—by doing those things necessary to create decent living environments at reasonable costs. State leaders cannot as easily as a president attack crime and illegitimacy and gang warfare with only grandiose rhetoric and feel-good legislation; their voters can more readily hold them accountable for actually doing something about these matters, and so they must try to do them.

Second, most of the plausible ideas for improving family life that have penetrated the Beltway barrier behind which our government crouches have come not from Washington experts or lobbyists but from citizens and officials in cities, counties, and states who have actually tried something new and found that it works.

States fell into disrepute in the 1950s and 1960s for one overriding reason—they were the bastions of segregation. The national government also practiced segregation, of course, but because Washington did not educate our children, police our streets, or run our parks and playgrounds, it was less visible. The battle for civil rights has not been completely won, but everywhere, in every state, the forces of racism are in retreat. The states, having been purged of Jim Crow laws and lily-white legislatures, ought now to resume their rightful and constructive role in providing for the common welfare.

But though there is reason to think that states, counties, and cities will be more imaginative and more likely to enlist private agencies than Washington, there's no guarantee they'll act this way. The problem for the national government is twofold: it must not only get out of the way but also must leave behind some incentives for bolder state action.

I am not certain how to do this. Finding out how ought to be one of the central tasks of the hearings on welfare reform that presumably will occur in the next Congress. The welfare money returned to the states might be supplemented with challenge grants to help pay for innovative programs. Opportunities might be provided for pooling housing subsidies and welfare checks so as to permit more extensive interventions.

Even if the states should prove themselves unimaginative or listless, there are philosophical reasons for making what is now called welfare a state responsibility supported in part by federal funds. To the extent that welfare involves income redistribution, it is properly a national duty. But to the extent that it involves character development, it is a local one. When it comes to defining the essential features of a decent family life and prescribing the desirable guidelines for child care, the clearest, most authentic voices will be those of friends and neighbors, not those of policy analysts and distant legislators. The more precisely we attune the design of child care to the central message of the communal voices, the more likely we are to make progress.

Though philosophical as well as practical considerations suggest state and local experimentation, we must be prepared for the possibility that nothing we do by plan will make a large difference in the life chances of at-risk children. We are experiencing the working out of a massive cultural shift that has been under way for many decades—indeed, for most of this century. That cultural shift has as its central feature the emancipation of the individual from the restraints of tradition, community, and government. Most of us have benefited greatly from the freedom and opportunity that have resulted. And most of us have paid only a modest price for these benefits: we may have children who wear odd clothes, hear music that conveys a frenetic mindlessness, and confront media that are increasingly vulgar. We can endure these things; some, forever adolescent, even enjoy them.

But those among us who are for any reason especially lacking in internal restraints and thus especially vulnerable to cultural shifts have paid a very high price. Sex has been divorced from commitment, child rearing separated from family life, escapism extended to drug abuse, and entry-level work redefined as demeaning. This is not a uniquely racial problem or a uniquely American one; it is a feature of much of the industrialized West.

We must choose among three responses: await a moral reawakening, increase public safety, or try to rebuild the family lives of our most at-risk children. We should strive for all three, but with varying degrees of optimism. Moral revitalization may occur, but it will not occur by plan. Public safety can be enhanced, but the cost is high, and it will punish those people whose lives are already blighted and whose progeny are already set upon the wrong path. Remaking family life is equally costly and its prospects equally uncertain, but we have done it in the past. In Victorian England and Victorian America, countless organizations tried to save the children and did so on the basis of firm convictions as to what constitutes a decent family life. We have to some degree abandoned the effort, and the moral convictions that underlie it, in favor of something we now call, disdainfully, welfare. We have replaced our desire to save children with a desire to end either poverty or dependency. Poverty and dependency are social ills, but there are poor and dependent families who raise decent children.

What we call problems shapes how we approach them. Let us stop calling our problem welfare, where young mothers are involved. We ought to be talking about saving the children. If we reduce poverty or dependency and still allow incompetent parents to raise vulnerable children, we will succeed only in finding a new route to the false utopia that Karl Marx held out to us: a world without want or subservience, but also one without virtue, or decency, or self-respect.


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next