June 6, 1996 | Commentary on Welfare and Welfare Spending

ED060696b: Really Stand For Children: Fix Welfare

Recently, the nation's capitol was the scene of the "Stand for Children" rally organized by the liberal Children's Defense Fund. The rally's proclaimed goal was to call attention to the plight of the nation's children; its unstated goal was to defend the continuing growth of the welfare system and to criticize those in Congress who have sought reform.

While the rally was correct to call attention to the plight of many of America's children, the irony is that children are suffering because of the governmental policies supported by the rally's organizers. Children are suffering because the liberal welfare state has carpet-bombed the moral foundations of the inner city, toppling marriage, gutting the work ethic, and leaving a rubble of social pathology in its wake.

The failure of the War on Poverty stems from its flawed premise: a core belief that "material poverty" is critically harmful to children. According to this view, welfare, by reducing material poverty, can increase children's well-being and lifetime attainment. Similarly, since poverty "causes" such problems as crime, school failure, low cognitive ability, illegitimacy, an eroded work ethic, and drug use -- greater welfare spending can readily reduce poverty and most social problems at the same time. From this simplistic logic has sprung a relentless 30-year effort to raise welfare benefits, expand welfare eligibility, create new welfare programs, and increase welfare spending. The "Stand for Children" rally repeated this tired theme.

But history refutes this naive belief in welfare. In 1950, nearly a third of the U.S. population was poor (twice the current rate). In the 1920s, roughly half of the population was poor by today's standard. If it were true that "material poverty" causes social problems, we should have had far more social problems in those earlier periods than we do today. On the contrary: Crime, family breakup and most other social problems were nowhere near the levels they are today.

History and common sense both show that values and abilities within families -- not family income -- are what determine children's achievement. Successful families tend to have sound values concerning self-control, deferred gratification, work, education and marriage, which they pass on to their children. Attempting to raise family income artificially through welfare does little to benefit a child, but does a lot to destroy the very values that are key to a child's success.

The point many liberals refuse to recognize is that welfare has behavioral side effects. It engenders dependence and illegitimacy, both highly injurious to children's development. For example, among the nearly 5 million families currently receiving AFDC benefits, the total time spent on welfare will average nearly 13 years. A 1994 report by June O'Neill, currently Congressional Budget Office director, shows that increasing the length of time a child spends on welfare may reduce the child's IQ by as much as 20 percent. O'Neill makes clear that welfare dependence, rather than poverty, is what truly hurts children.

By paying women more money when they have children out of wedlock, welfare also plays a powerful role in promoting illegitimacy, a fact acknowledged by President Clinton but ignored by the "Stand for Children" organizers. Being born outside of marriage and raised in a single-parent home triples the level of behavioral and emotional problems among children; nearly triples the level of teen sexual activity; doubles the probability a young woman will have children out of wedlock; and doubles the probability a boy will engage in criminal activity and wind up in jail.

We can't help America's children by continuing past mistaken policies. The current welfare system must be replaced; the automatic and rapid growth of welfare spending must be curtailed. In the future, welfare no longer should be a one-way hand out; adult recipients should be required to work for the benefits they receive. And steps must be taken to reduce future illegitimacy, beginning with restricting cash welfare to unmarried teen moms.

We must begin to focus on institutions with a record of success, not failure. Religious institutions have been dramatically successful in reducing teen sexual activity, crime, drug use, and other problems among young people. One way to give the poor access to this fountain of hope would be to give poor parents education vouchers they could freely use to send their children to private schools, including religious schools.

But Americans should remember that well-meaning, big-government liberals who call welfare reformers "anti-child" are the unwitting advocates of precisely what is hurting America's children: welfare.

Note: Robert E. Rector is senior 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