August 1, 1995 | Commentary on Welfare and Welfare Spending

How to Reform Welfare

In the battle over welfare reform, the blame game already has started. The White House stands ready to point the accusing finger at Congress if lawmakers dare to take the tough steps that are needed, while Congress cowers in fear at the thought of being blamed for "lack of compassion."

But hope springs eternal. Just in case Washington decides it wants to forget politics and "just do it," as the saying goes, here are a few of the steps it can take to get welfare spending under control and break the cycle of dependency:

  1. The growth of total welfare spending must be capped at 3 percent per year. One reason welfare spending is out of control is because there aren't any controls on it. In 1965, Americans paid about 1.5 percent of gross national product (GNP) for welfare. By 1993, they were paying more than 5 percent, or $324 billion. In just three years, we're projected to be paying around $500 billion, or about 6 percent of GNP.

    A 3 percent cap on the yearly increase in welfare spending would force state welfare bureaucracies to grapple with illegitimacy and dependency. And reformers should note: A 3 percent "cap" is still a yearly spending increase of 3 percent. It's not a cutoff.

  2. Limit welfare benefits to unwed teenage mothers. Welfare makes it possible for young, unmarried women to have children and set up house as single parents. This is another reason welfare costs are skyrocketing. The welfare rolls increase geometrically year by year because many welfare children grow up to do the same thing their mothers did. This must stop. Statistically, children born out of wedlock are by far the most likely to fail in school, take drugs and engage in crime.

    Instead of paying money directly to unwed teenage mothers, the money they would have received through Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and Food Stamps should be given to the states. States could develop programs to assist teenage mothers, including promoting adoption, orphanages or assisting young mothers in tightly-supervised group homes. Since other families don't receive increased income when they have additional children, neither should women on AFDC and/or Food Stamps. Eventually, direct federal payments to unwed mothers of all ages should be eliminated, so there is no longer a government reward for having children out of wedlock.

  3. The law requiring mothers on AFDC to identify the father of their children, routinely ignored by welfare workers, should be enforced. Modern DNA testing permits determination of a child's father beyond a shadow of doubt. Once paternity is determined, fathers should be required to pay child support to offset welfare costs. If a father claimed that he could not pay, the government could require him to perform community service.
  4. Reduce welfare's marriage penalty. When couples on welfare marry, their benefits decrease. This discourages marriage and contributes to illegitimacy. A pro-marriage tax credit should be extended to low-income married couples who support dependent children and have at least one parent employed. The tax credit should be worth $1,000, and families paying less than that amount in federal taxes in any particular year should be able to receive the remainder of the credit in the form of a check from the government.
  5. Establish serious workfare. Previous welfare "reforms," including President Clinton's recent proposal, have talked about workfare without requiring many people to work. Work requirements should be imposed first on able-bodied, non-elderly, single persons on welfare, followed by fathers in two-parent families and absent fathers who fail to pay child support. All able-bodied persons in the AFDC-UP and Food Stamp programs and half of all single mothers on AFDC -- those whose children are school age -- should have to work for their benefits.
  6. Pass school voucher programs as part of a broader effort to promote cultural renewal. Members of Congress must recognize three rules for escaping poverty in America; no one who follows them will be "chronically poor": a) finish high school; b) Get a job -- any job -- and stick with it; and c) Do not have children outside of marriage.

Ample research shows that the church is the institution best suited to instill the values that encourage these behaviors. School voucher programs would help churches play a greater role in molding America's youth. Poor parents should be able to take vouchers worth the sum spent on their children in public schools and use them at schools of their choice, including private, religious schools. Many low-income parents, trying to save their kids from violence, drugs and sexual promiscuity, would love to place them in church-based schools. If voucher plans were set up in cities, dozens of high-quality, private religious schools would spring up, operating as adjuncts of urban churches.

Congress and the White House have an opportunity to convert the welfare system from a one-way handout into a system of mutual responsibility in which welfare recipients are given aid but also are expected to contribute something to society for assistance given.

Or, they can just keep playing politics.

Note: Robert E. Rectoris senior analyst for family and welfare issues at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Robert Rector
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society