Desperate single mothers are mugging illegal aliens, shoplifting, and fencing stolen goods in order to survive, and it’s all the fault of those heartless Republicans and spineless Democrats who passed the 1996 welfare reform law. Such, at least, is the message of a front-page article in the New York Times, the first salvo in a likely campaign to roll back the most successful federal law in recent memory.
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) limited federal welfare payments to five years and conditioned them on a recipient’s effort to find work—in essence, stripping welfare of its entitlement status. As a result, the welfare rolls dropped two-thirds from 1996 to 2009, work rates of never-married mothers surged, and black child poverty fell to its lowest level ever.
But according to Times reporter Jason DeParle, TANF has not performed as it should have during the recession. Rather than skyrocketing, the welfare rolls have risen “only” 15 percent since 2007, and still remain 68 percent below their pre-reform peak. Some people, of course, would see the relative stability in welfare usage as a sign of success—proof that TANF has permanently discouraged at least one form of dependency. Not DeParle, however, who tries to show that the law has resulted in severe hardship for single mothers at the bottom of the economic ladder, forcing them to turn to crime and other forms of hustling to survive.
To his credit, DeParle himself provides much of the evidence that refutes his main story line. Nevertheless, his piece reveals a continuing divide over the analysis of poverty and the behavior that creates it, one that will grow more pointed in the coming years.
To set up the anti-TANF argument, DeParle resurrects Georgetown law professor Peter Edelman, last seen quitting his White House post in protest when President Bill Clinton signed TANF. Edelman now claims vindication for his apocalyptic predictions regarding welfare reform: “My take on it was the states would push people off and not let them back on, and that’s just what they did,” he tells DeParle. “It’s been even worse than I thought it would be.”
Edelman may well have been right, DeParle suggests: some states have shortened their TANF time limits and tightened eligibility requirements since the recession began, and in 16 states, the rolls have shrunk over the last four years. (That still leaves 34 states, of course, where the rolls have increased.) The implication is that any changes in the welfare rules were unfair and made it impossible to alleviate legitimate need, even though the states that have lowered their welfare rolls are spending their federal TANF dollars on adoption, foster care, and other programs of arguably greater importance to child welfare than monthly welfare checks. DeParle notes that some states “explicitly” pursue a policy of deterrence to make sure that people use the program only as a last resort (horrors!) and incredulously quotes Michigan’s welfare director explaining his state’s caseload drop: “We [still] have a fair number of people gaming the system.” The possibility that this administrator may be right is never considered.
DeParle introduces us to some of the alleged victims of TANF, all from Arizona: a woman who “rob[s] wetbacks,” in her words, and lures other men into traps where accomplices also rob them; a 21-year-old mother of two who went to a shelter after her welfare checks stopped, then returned to a boyfriend with a violent temper; a 29-year-old mother of four who helps a friend sell shoplifted clothes; and, in a classic Times stroke, an illegal immigrant who ran out the time limits on her four children’s welfare checks and now scavenges for cans and bottles en famille.
We are presumably to assume that these women have tried diligently but unsuccessfully to find work, though DeParle never says so explicitly. In fact, only 12 percent of the nonworking poor surveyed in 2009 by New York University professor Larry Mead said that they weren’t working because they couldn’t find a job. We are most certainly supposed to assume that a 21-year-old mother of two should not have been expected to assess whether she and her male sexual partners were ready to support a family; it is for her to have babies and for taxpayers to provide for them. And if TANF cuts off that support for failure to comply with its rules, the problem lies with the law, not with the decision-making that led to the need for welfare in the first place.
DeParle implies without much proof that such alleged hardship cases have been increasing. He cites a study showing that about 1.5 million low-income single mothers are jobless and without cash aid—twice the rate as before TANF. The percentage of female-headed households in “deep poverty” (defined as half the official poverty-level income) is at its highest level in 18 years, according to the Census Bureau (yet still less than the pre-TANF peak). Another study finds that one of every 50 children comes from a household living on less than $2 a day per person.
But as DeParle himself recognizes, the claim that welfare reform has exacerbated economic hardship is contradicted by other data. Despite the recession, the poverty rate of single mothers remains lower than it was before welfare reform. In New York City, the percentage of never-married, female-headed households in “deep poverty” in 2010 was almost 30 percent below the peak in 1995. Self-reported consumption levels of poor single mothers have improved since welfare reform passed, confirming the view of many analysts that traditional poverty measures significantly underreport income. Nearly 60 percent of the families whom DeParle portrays as the main victims of welfare reform—those neither working nor receiving cash aid—change their status within the year, in part because entry-level jobs have remained available in many places, including New York City, during the recession. (Whether welfare recipients have the self-discipline to keep those jobs is another matter.)
And, as DeParle concedes, the poor “can turn to other programs like food stamps and Medicaid” to supplement their welfare check. Can turn? They have been turning to food stamps in droves, now that the Obama administration has loosened eligibility requirements and campaigned to sign up as many people as possible. Tellingly, food stamps ask nothing of the recipient and have no time limits, and poverty advocates have all but eliminated the last remaining checks on food stamp fraud. It’s no surprise, then, that in 2010, the federal government spent twice as much on food stamps as it did in 2007, as economist and New York Times blogger Casey Mulligan reports.
Other forms of assistance have also shot through the roof; in fact, more taxpayer money sloshes around the bottom of the income ladder than ever before. In Detroit, one in five adults are now on SSI, the disability program for the never-working poor, though it’s unlikely that one in five adults in Detroit are actually unable to work. As DeParle notes, one-quarter of poor single mothers pay rents as low as $50 a month, thanks to taxpayer-subsidized housing. Even the illegal alien whom DeParle celebrates for collecting recyclables, rather than stealing, lives in subsidized housing and cashes in $650 a month in food stamps—this in allegedly immigrant-hostile Arizona. (The father of her children lives in subsidized housing as well: he is in prison.)
Indeed, the growth in non-TANF welfare programs suggests a less rosy interpretation of the relatively flat TANF usage since the recession began: it’s not that potential recipients have absorbed a strengthened norm against dependency, but that they have migrated to undemanding forms of welfare.
But if the empirical case for TANF’s harmful effects is weak, the philosophical case against it lacks any merit at all. DeParle implies that the most disorganized, incompetent single mothers would be better off with more unconditional government money coming in every month. Jason Turner, the visionary architect of welfare reform in New York and Wisconsin, suggests a thought experiment to test that view: increase the government cash coming in to the most disorderly households by 50 percent, he says. Would these never-working mothers get jobs? Would they marry? Would they stop taking drugs, save for the future, or teach their children the importance of self-discipline and honesty? The answer to all these questions, Turner rightly concludes, is no. None of the most important determinants of success for adults and children would change for the better in these welfare-supported households. Instead the mothers would most likely spend their additional cash on the items they already consume—entertainment, clothes, electronics, and food and restaurants.
Moreover, reopening the spigot of unconditional cash could jeopardize a more vital segment of society, Turner argues—the still-working poor. Welfare reform sought to send the message that work is the primary route to income in all but the most extreme cases of disability. Once welfare becomes an alternative to work, and the rewards for non-work increase, the working poor might decide to join the dependency class.
Conservatives can argue for the value of welfare reform until they’re blue in the face, however, but they can always be trumped, at least in venues like the New York Times, by the inevitable parade of single mothers barely scraping by. Indeed, conservatives left themselves open to being so trumped by stressing the “You go, girl!” aspects of welfare reform. They rightly cheered on the newly engaged welfare mother but wrongly implied that single-parent households could be made whole if the mothers would just go to work. It remains the case, however, that with or without welfare reform, the lot of most never-married mothers and their children is miserable. As DeParle notes, the well-being of fatherless children—measured by grades, crime, drug use, and life aspirations—did not significantly improve after their mothers went to work.
It is time, therefore, to tackle the problem of out-of-wedlock births head-on. And that means remoralizing the discourse around child-bearing. When DeParle profiles a 21-year-old mother of two as a victim of welfare reform because she is allegedly forced to live with an ill-tempered boyfriend now that her welfare payments have run out, conservatives can legitimately ask what has become a taboo question: “Why didn’t you think of that before you had the children?” So assiduously nonjudgmental is the liberal discourse around poverty that DeParle portrays the crime committed by single mothers as the consequence of welfare reform—rather than of those mothers’ previous abysmal decision-making regarding procreation and their present lack of morals. It’s unfair, he implies, that single mothers have to double up with family members or return to violent relationships. And of course, he stays silent about the men who fathered the children of the mothers he profiles. Where are they? Who are they? His article offers not a clue. They may as well not even exist, so little are they expected to support their children. The only father we know about for sure is the illegal-alien convict; the other shadowy boyfriends, passingly mentioned only as inappropriate roommates, may or may not be the fathers of their current girlfriends’ children.
The Left’s essential strategy when it comes to poverty is to assess need and desert only in the present moment. If someone shows up at a welfare office saying: “I have no means of support for myself and my children,” the proper role of the government bureaucrat is to ask: “How big a check do you require?” rather than: “What did you do to put yourself into this situation?”
Conservatives should respond to the Left’s present-oriented framework for analyzing welfare and poverty by reintroducing the connection between past behavior and present need. Underclass poverty doesn’t just happen to people, as the Left implies. It is almost always the consequence of poor decision-making—above all, having children out of wedlock. A single mother almost inevitably faces a life of stress and instability, even if she gets a job per TANF rules. More importantly, out-of-wedlock child-rearing is profoundly irresponsible. The evidence is incontrovertible: children raised in single-parent homes do worse on all measures of socialization than those raised by married parents.
Over the last decade and a half, the Right has gotten sucked up into an increasingly sterile debate about the nuts and bolts of welfare reform: whether to impose full-check or partial-check sanctions for rule violations, for example, or what the proper size of the caseload-reduction credit should be. Such a focus on regulatory minutiae was necessary in the early stages of welfare reform, since turning around welfare bureaucracies from check-writing structures to work-incentivizing organizations was essential to TANF’s success. But by now it’s clear that requiring welfare mothers to work or any other possible tweaks to the rules is not going to change underclass norms around child-rearing, as TANF’s drafters had wistfully hoped. And the seeming intractability of out-of-wedlock child-rearing guarantees future demand for big-government programs. What is needed now is a full-throated campaign in every government office, bully pulpit, and private agency to reassert the value of fatherhood and marriage.