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Crucial reforms are still begging for attention

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Is Welfare Reform Really A Success?

Crucial reforms are still begging for attention

While election-time GOP press releases claim welfare reform a victory, reality suggests that Republicans left the most crucial aspects of the war on socialism unmitigated. The bleak election prospects for Republicans this fall, highlighted recently in the Evans-Novak Political Report, suggest this may well be because Republicans promised many things in the Contract with America that voters wanted but were not delivered.

Deborah Pryce, chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, recently claimed welfare reform a tremendous success, despite a wide variety of key social indicators moving the very wrong direction and large sections of the social conservative base disaffected and detached from the party.

Why is welfare reform a failure?  Because we took Baghdad, called it a victory, and left without finishing the job. Welfare reform did reduce caseloads, and the work requirement did reduce poverty for poor women by about 20%. But it also caused an explosion of child support cases (which is just another way to entitle illegitimacy and rampant divorce).

In short: marriage is still on the rocks, and federal funding continues to hyper-stimulate everything except marriage. This is quite short of the goals set forth in the Contract with America.

The shortfall is easily visible in social data. The overall birth rate is at record lows, while the proportion of all births to unmarried women increased to 35.8% in 2004, the highest ever recorded. More Americans are cohabiting in weak relationships, and fewer are marrying to begin with, a fact that the House Ways and Means Committee interprets as a success. Divorce rates are still very high, at 3.8 per 100,000 population (the small decline in divorce rates parallels declining marriage rates).

Illegitimacy rates have increased substantially since welfare reform was passed. Illegitimacy was a mere 4% in the early 1950s. It exploded with the Great Society, reaching 25% in 1998. In 1999 it rose to 33%, and reached 35% by 2003. There is no question that welfare reform is a failure where it continues to strongly stimulate illegitimate births.

This failure becomes self-evident when we look at illegitimacy amongst the poor, which for blacks stands at an astonishing 68%. The low-income sector is where welfare continues to buy-out marriage, widening the broad population of young men who are born without social legitimacy with little chance of establishing it on their own. The hyperactivity of welfare entitlements thus leaves poor families weaker and poorer than they would otherwise be, in a morass of uncivil men and women unable to pull their own communities up by the bootstraps.

Federal reports do not reflect the fact that poverty is a greater problem than ever for poor men because we placed the burden of the welfare state on them and criminalized their poverty if they cannot pay an arbitrary amount of “child support” that some bureaucrat decided they must pay. There are few poor men who can support two households, much less one. Yet, this is what the current federal model demands.

In the final analysis, we cannot call welfare reformed until marriage is restored as the social norm, in both poor and middle class families. The bulk of the problems are yet to be addressed, as evidenced by many astonishing facts:

  • The United States has the highest incarceration rate of the 205 independent countries of the world.   
  • My research, learned from confidential sources suggests that up to 40% of prisoners in county jails may be so-called “dead beat” dads. Many of these are poor black men brought up in a welfare culture that still has no use for men in marriage or family.
  • A poor man incarcerated for failure to pay a demanded sum of cash each month that is not connected to real earnings gets farther behind on support, will be cyclically re-incarcerated, and is unlikely to ever be able to re-enter society.
  • TANF restrictions are being loopholed by illegal immigrants, who receive “welfare” for “child-only” cases without working.   Liberals are working to turn what is left of the “welfare” into a nationwide child-support state, with big government serving as the deadbeat dad when another one cannot be located. In divorce, child support is a “right of the child”. Radicals desperaty wish to restore welfare as an unconditional right, by recasting it as child support, in addition to attacking time and other limitations.
  • Currently only 1% of TANF is used to promote child well-being and healthy marriages, via weak “education” programs that accomplish nothing. Education is not the problem — federal policy is. If we could trust drug dealers to run the ATF, we could also trust the welfare system to promote marriage. Policies to restore marriage must necessarily be enacted and operated from outside the welfare bureaucracy.

From a 2,000-foot view, here is the status of welfare reform:

  • Phase 1, requiring single mothers to work, is largely accomplished. While this has ameliorated poverty for women, it has had the reverse effect for poor men, and left about 40% of America’s children living outside a married family, and at high risk for a Pandora’s box of serious social and developmental problems that government cannot directly repair.
  • Perverse incentives to have children out of wedlock remain fully functional. Most modern effective birth-control methods are invisible and used by women. Entitlements substantially change the calculus of out-of-wedlock childbearing, and undermine marriage.  Whether we call it welfare or child support, the entitlement of irresponsible childbearing has devastated the lower classes and has moved into the middle class. This is driving continued family fragmentation and causing widespread discrimination against men in family and society in the supposed interest of collecting child support.
  • Children raised outside marriage continue to pay the price. They are under-parented, poorly supervised, and far more likely to become involved in crime, gang violence, suicide drugs, truancy, and intergenerational illegitimacy. Boys, in particular have no male role model and fail in schools which expect boys to behave like little girls.

To complete welfare reform, Republicans must enact the following styles of legislation, all of which will strengthen marriage and extricate government from anti-family entitlement programs. Federal funding currently drives many abuses of adults and children, which can only be ended with sensible, clear directives limiting what funds may not be used for.

  • Reform the Violence Against Women Act, to be replaced with a gender-neutral program with evidence-based standards, penalties for making false allegations, and elements to help a responsible spouse get a chemical-abusing spouse into treatment. Service providers must be required to help individuals regardless of sex in order to qualify for federal funding.
  • Establish child support cap that states cannot exceed, expressed as a percentage of actual monthly income of the non-custodial parent. Revise laws to require state courts to correct past orders where support orders have exceeded actual income of the non-custodial parent, and to forgive amounts in excess of federal caps.
  • Penalize states that do not require shared-parenting custody orders, such as the Time-Shift Shared Parenting model.
  • Require states to recognize federal parental rights of the non-custodial parent. When children are removed from a single-parent family household, states must notify the other parent, and that parent must have first right of custody unless that parent is either unfit or waives custody.
  • Require a positive DNA test before child support may be ordered, and require states to terminate support orders when a DNA test is negative, regardless of marital status of the parents.

To rebuild a political base for 2008, Republicans must acknowledge that it is the social conservative grassroots base that repeatedly put them in office since 1992. Without finishing welfare reform, Republicans should know there is no chance of winning in 2008. Perhaps the lessons that will be learned in the 2006 election cycle will help Republicans re-commit to finishing crucial welfare reforms still begging for attention.

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Written By

Mr. Usher is senior policy analyst for the True Equality Network, and president of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children, Missouri Coalition.

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