by Roger F. Gay
Pro-marriage conservatives argue that the breakdown of the two-parent family is the root cause of welfare dependence, and that millions of Americans will remain trapped in poverty unless the nation fosters a culture of marriage in poor communities. Among other proposals, they ask that welfare workers encourage recipients to marry. Those who have been listening to the debate for many years may recognize a subtle but important reversal. Conservatives have argued for decades that the welfare system caused the breakdown of the family, not the other way around.
It is ironic that some conservatives are choosing to alter the definition of the problem now. Evidence is mounting that the past quarter century of welfare expansion has increased and intensified the barriers to family formation. Welfare mothers are convinced that they cannot survive marriage. Welfare fathers tremble at the thought of being formally recognized as fathers. Further contributing to family breakdown, many middle and upper income mothers benefit economically from divorce. Many divorced fathers, even those with reasonably good income, are left with too little to pay the often high cost of seeing their children regularly.
The last wave of welfare reformers blamed welfare dependency on men who abandon their children to government aid. The wave of reform that followed was particularly rough on fathers. Those who cannot keep up with arbitrary demands face devastating consequences. A 1997 government study explained; “The disincentives are sufficiently compelling to have prompted the emergence of a phenomenon dubbed “underground fathers” — men who are involved in the lives of their children, but refuse to participate as fathers in formal systems.”
The child support issue was used to expand the use of welfare policy and its destructive effects to families at all income levels. Welfare as we knew it consisted of a set of programs that provided support for needy families. Today, the vast majority of so-called “collections” in the child support enforcement system are actually non-problematic regular payments by one middle-income parent to another. Billions of dollars in “increased collections” have been reported, brought about largely by the inclusion of more such cases in state “collection” systems. States then receive more federal funds based on the amount they “collect.” Welfare reform has led to an arbitrary increase in the amount of “child support” awarded as well, which further increases the amount “collected.”
Contrary to popular myth, the typical divorced mother is doing pretty well financially. Fathers rights advocates and an increasing number of social policy analysts are saying that many are now doing too well. The evidence is in the divorce rate and the fact that mothers initiate divorce 3 to 4 times as often as fathers do. In an in-depth study of divorce, Sanford Braver, an Arizona State University Professor and author of “Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths,” discovered that the reasons women divorce today are often quite trivial. Another study by the Children’s Rights Council found that states with laws favoring shared parenting and appropriate child support awards have lower divorce rates.
Lack of family formation related to teen pregnancy is much higher on the list of causes of poverty. But once again, conservatives have long argued that the welfare system provides support that encourages single parenthood. Once established, the members of a poor family may be trapped in the cycle of poverty. Poverty is much harder to escape once family obligations become more important than personal development, especially through education and training. Children may carry on the welfare lifestyle established by their parent.
Kentucky family policy analyst Ann Swango says that we fund what we do not want. Current child support policies coupled with custody practices that dramatically reduce one parent’s ability to remain involved have brought about basic changes in society. After adoption of new child support laws, the number of paternity cases has risen. Paternity has not been established in a large percentage of welfare cases. She adds that multiple marriages with children have increased in higher income groups.
For approximately half of all single parent households, there is no related child support order. This single fact explains the extremely poor rate of return on the government’s huge investments in child support enforcement. There is no order to enforce. If welfare provides better support for a single mother than the father can, then remaining separate may be the rational economic choice. Refusing to identify the father to welfare workers may also be the rational economic choice, making the vision of welfare workers encouraging marriage difficult to understand. If she says she doesn’t know who the father is, who do they suggest she should marry?
Surveys have shown that a significant number of fathers of children born out of wedlock do not know that they are fathers, or are at least very uncertain. Mothers do not always know who the father is. But many do. We know that many fathers do, or believe they do, because men often show up at the hospital when children are born to give their personal support and pay doctor and hospital bills when they can. Many of these men cannot offer sufficient financial support on an ongoing basis, and the rational economic choices are as clear to them as they are to mothers.
The new wave of “pro-marriage conservatives” hold fast to their philosophy. The case is based on sound moral and practical values. Marriage is good. Broken families are not good. Many policy analysts would generally agree that marriage is best for children and parents in a great variety of ways and that there are negative consequences to the breakdown of the family. To make good policy we need to become a bit more righteous in understanding the details of the problem, and how our expectations actually affect families.
Welfare is always seen as a problem, and always subject to the next philosophical wave. Finding serious solutions is much easier when a problem is accurately defined.
Copyright 2001 Roger F. Gay. All rights reserved. This article first appeared in TooGoodReports.