During the emotional national debate over welfare reform, the child advocates and politicians who opposed reform warned that forcing welfare mothers to work would place their kids at much greater risk of neglect and abuse. Remember New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s apocalyptic prophecy that millions of children “would be put to the sword” if welfare reform became law?
Well, guess what? This summer, the Department of Health and Human Services released a report showing that substantiated cases of child neglect and maltreatment actually fell each of the two years after welfare reform passed—from 14.7 per 1,000 kids in 1996 to 12.9 in 1998, a 12.2 percent drop. Both anecdotal evidence and state figures suggest that next year’s HHS data will show the trend continuing. Last year in New York City, there were 23 child fatalities in households with a history of abuse and neglect, down from 36 in 1998 and the fewest since 1983.
How did those who predicted catastrophe get it so wrong? They relied on two flawed assumptions. The first was that uneducated and unskilled welfare mothers would never find jobs and so would no longer be able to provide basic food and shelter for their kids. As a result, the children would be neglected and wind up in foster care. This proved false almost immediately, as former welfare recipients flooded into the workforce, cutting welfare rolls 50 percent in three years.
The second assumption, often referred to as the “stress hypothesis,” says that, even if former welfare mothers do find work, the economic pressure of holding down a low-paying job will make them less available for their kids—or, worse, cause them to lash out and become, as the National Center for Children in Poverty put it, “more harsh and punitive.”
It didn’t happen. After exhaustively reviewing the relevant literature for her recent book What Money Can’t Buy, left-leaning University of Chicago sociologist Susan Meyer concludes that people who possess those qualities that employers value—diligence, honesty, anger management, and reliability—also tend to be more effective parents. Defenders of the stress hypothesis never considered that work might actually be educating long-term welfare recipients in those virtuous qualities that their employers want but that also make them better moms. The work ethic really is an ethic.
Does the decline in child neglect and abuse mean that opponents of reform will reconsider their core assumptions? Don’t hold your breath. They continue to scour the country for bad news that might prop up their tottering beliefs. But it’s increasingly clear that welfare reform is helping not just welfare mothers but their kids, too.