February 22, 1996 | Commentary on Welfare and Welfare Spending , Family and Marriage

ED022296b: Welfare Reform and the Death of Marriage

Congress is considering adopting a welfare reform plan recently put forward by the nation's governors. Unfortunately, the governors' plan blithely ignores America's No. 1 social problem: the catastrophic rise of illegitimacy.

Nearly a third of American children born last year were born out of wedlock. The illegitimate birthrate is now rising one percentage point every year. In the black community the out-of-wedlock birthrate is now 69 percent. This figure astounds even Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., who first issued his prophetic warnings about the erosion of marriage among blacks in the early 1960s. Moynihan's warning was dismissed at the time, but the breakup of the black family and the accompanying social calamities have far outstripped his worst nightmares.

Ominously, the illegitimate birthrate among whites is now edging toward 25 percent, almost exactly equaling the black rate when Moynihan first raised his alarm. The white family is now teetering on the same precipice, heading rapidly toward the same lethal decomposition that devastated black communities in the late 1960s and 1970s.

Family collapse is the root cause of other social problems: poverty, crime, drug abuse, and school failure. Children born out of wedlock are seven times more likely to be poor than are those born to couples who stay married. Girls raised in single-parent homes on welfare are five times more likely to give birth out of wedlock when compared to girls from intact non-welfare families. And a boy from a single-parent home in the inner city is twice as likely to engage in crime when compared to a similar boy who is poor, but living with a father and a mother.

The nation's governors have responded to this grim reality by ignoring it. In unveiling their welfare reform plan they have declared that there are three "key elements" to real welfare reform: 1.) providing more government-funded day-care; 2.) increasing child-support payments from absent fathers; and 3.) imposing time limits and work requirements (with lots of loopholes) on welfare recipients. The rise in illegitimacy and collapse of marriage do not merit even a token comment, let alone aggressive policies, from the governors.

Thus, over the last year, the welfare debate has undergone a radical metamorphosis from a focus on combating illegitimacy to a focus on providing public support services to an ever-expanding population of single mothers. Eschewing the issue of illegitimacy entirely, the governors' plan instead appears as preparation for a future in which marriage plays a sharply diminished role, and the government is heavily involved in meeting the needs of an burgeoning population of single-parent families. The triumph of the left on this aspect of the debate has been complete: Fighting illegitimacy is "out" and funding government day-care is "in."

Some would argue that federal action on illegitimacy is unneeded: If left alone, the governors will, on their own, tackle the problem. But the governors' silence speaks volumes. Few, if any, governors have made reducing illegitimacy a central theme of reform; most are reluctant even to mention the topic. But by refusing to acknowledge or mention the collapse of marriage and the rise of illegitimacy in their plan, the governors are implicitly condoning and (through paralysis) ultimately promoting the skyrocketing rise in illegitimacy. They are clearly embarked on a path that will lead, in the near future, to half of all children being born out of wedlock and raised in government day-care centers. This is not reform. It is a national disaster.

The governors' plan, borrowing heavily from the "reform" schemes of President Clinton and other liberal proposals, dovetails with the interests of America's huge welfare bureaucracy -- an industry that thrives on social decay. While the plan will trim the growth rate of welfare spending slightly in the near term, by failing to deal with ballooning rates of illegitimacy it sets the stage for an explosive rise in welfare and social-service spending in the future.

Nor are the governors alone. Under its recently passed legislation, Congress is committed to spending nearly a half trillion dollars over seven years to subsidize and support illegitimacy and single parenthood through multiple welfare benefits, day- care, job training and other services. Under the congressional plan, government will spend $1,000 to subsidize single parenthood and illegitimacy for each dollar spent to reduce illegitimacy.

The governors' welfare reform plan would distort priorities even further. When the dust settles on welfare reform, even token efforts to fight illegitimacy will have fallen by the wayside.

This is a tragedy. Marriage in America is dying. The governors have prepared not a rescue plan but a coffin. Many in Congress now seem resigned to assuming roles as undertakers. The simple fact is that "welfare reform" is nonsense as long as the illegitimate birth rate continues to rise. The silence of the governors on the issue is deafening. The welfare debate has become like a tea party on the Titanic in which the participants politely refrain from mentioning that the deck is tilting 40 degrees.

Vision and leadership are sorely needed -- and are sorely lacking.

Note: Robert E. Rector is senior policy analyst for welfare and family issues at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington- based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Robert Rector
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society