For the past 60 years, the system of welfare established by the Social Security Act of 1935 has manifestly failed to achieve its goal of eliminating poverty. Instead, the system has in many respects made it more difficult for America's poor to escape the cruel trap of poverty and despair.
After years of seeing their tax dollars squandered on dubious and counterproductive programs, the general public has finally come to the conclusion that the current system cannot continue in its present form. Even in Washington, the necessity of welfare reform has gained acceptance from across the political spectrum.
Both houses of Congress have responded to this outcry by passing comprehensive welfare reform bills that would make significant alterations to the current system. Two weeks ago, the Senate passed its version of the welfare reform bill by the overwhelming majority of 87-12. Earlier in the year, the House of Representatives passed a more conservative version of the bill by a substantial margin.
Both bills abolish the entitlement status of welfare, place a five-year limit on benefits, and provide welfare funds to states in the form of block grants. These measures would do much to break the cycle of welfare dependency by encouraging work and returning decision-making power to state authorities. But while both of these bills provide badly needed reforms of the current system, only the House version of the bill even begins to attack the central problem of the welfare system: the growing rate of illegitimacy.
While feminists and many of their liberal allies portray single motherhood as a fully viable and acceptable alternative to the two-parent family, the facts tell a strikingly different story. A study done by the National Center for Health Statistics in 1988 found that children in single-parent families are far more likely to drop out of high school, get pregnant as teenagers, use drugs, and break the law than their counterparts in two-parent households.
Even worse, children from single-parent families are more likely to end up as single-parents themselves, thereby extending the vicious legacy of illegitimacy to another generation. In addition, the growing number of single-parent households only makes it more difficult for the welfare system to achieve its goal of ending poverty. The best way to end poverty is to ensure that America's poor are able to find jobs so that they can support their families without government assistance, yet the widespread existence of single-parent households makes this nearly impossible.
If we use the current level of welfare benefits as the minimum necessary for a family to survive, then a single parent must make the equivalent of $10 per hour to support his or her family. In an economy where the average wage rate barely exceeds $12, it is very difficult for most poor single parents to find a job paying $10 an hour, considering their lack of education and of significant job skills.
The result has been that the more than $5.4 trillion dollars expended on welfare since 1960 has achieved little in terms of reducing the overall rate of poverty. While the poverty rate for two-parent households has declined, the increase in single-parent households has more than made up the difference.
Since 1960 the illegitimacy rate has skyrocketed from five percent to more than 25 percent. In many poor urban areas the percentage is well over 50 percent and growing. A welfare system that does not address the growing problem of illegitimacy is bound to fail. Yet the current system not only ignores illegitimacy, it actually contributes to the problem by encouraging single-motherhood. Since only unwed mothers can receive benefits under most government programs, the system discourages marriage and encourages teenagers who want financial independence to get pregnant.
Nor do the incentives end there. Not only are single women encouraged to have a child, they are encouraged to have more than one. For each additional child, a welfare mother receives cash benefits that are often spent on anything but diapers. The end result of such incentives has been a more than five-fold increase in the rate of illegitimacy over the past 35 years.
Sadly, only the House version of the welfare reform bill even begins to deal with this growing problem. The House bill eliminates aid to unwed mothers below the age of 18 and denies additional aid to mothers who have more children while on welfare.
The Senate bill, having been emasculated by moderates, does not include provisions for either one of these two crucial reforms. The Senate bill grants states the discretion to enact such reforms on their own, but the past policies of states such as New York, whose generous benefits have encouraged only welfare dependency, provide little hope that the granting of such discretionary powers will lead to real change.
But even the House bill does not attack the problem of illegitimacy aggressively enough. What is really needed is a total abolition of benefits to unwed mothers under the age of 26 and the redirection of such funds toward the establishment of orphanages, a policy change that has been proposed by conservative members of Congress.
At the very least, such a policy change would significantly reduce the number of out-of-wedlock births, a fact confirmed by a study done by Charles A. Murray '65. Murray's study showed that a 10 percent reduction in welfare benefits for unwed mothers would result in a corresponding five percent decline in illegitimacy, and larger cuts would produce an even sharper decline in illegitimacy. Admittedly, such a policy change would force many unwed mothers to give their children up to the state, but in the long run the benefits to society would more than outweigh the costs. The welfare system desperately needs reform that will reduce the rate of illegitimacy to its historical level of around five percent.
This goal can be achieved through a "tough love" approach to reform that places the long term interests of society first. Otherwise, all future efforts to end poverty in America are bound to fail.
The last, best hope of America now lies with the outcome of the 1996 election. Only a second, more conservative welfare reform bill can solve the fatal flaws that plague the current system, flaws that if left uncorrected will lead only to the further deterioration of the American family and a deepening to the pit of poverty in which so many millions of Americans are trapped.