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Getting Rough on the Poor

The Family Security Act of 1988 ("The Moynihan Bill")

Report of the Committee on Finance, US Senate
US Government Printing Office, 190 pp., Free

Creating the Future: The Massachusetts Comeback and Its Promise for America

by Michael S. Dukakis and Rosabeth Moss Kanter
Summit Books, 190 pp., $17.95

Poor Support: Poverty in the American Family

by David T. Ellwood
Basic Books, 271 pp., $19.95

Challenge To Leadership: Economic and Social Issues for the Next Decade

edited by Isabel V. Sawhill
Urban Institute Press, 326 pp., $12.95 (paper)

Laboratories of Democracy

by David Osborne
Harvard Business School Press, 380 pp., $24.95

The New Consensus on Family and Welfare

edited by Michael Novak et al.
American Enterprise Institute, 143 pp., $9.75 (paper)

Remaking the Welfare State: Retrenchment and Social Policy in America and Europe

edited by Michael K. Brown
Temple University Press, 312 pp., $34.95

Both political parties and most legislators now agree that Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the program commonly called “welfare,” needs radical reform. The Democratic platform pledges to “help people move from welfare to work.” The Republicans also say they will “reform welfare to encourage work as the ticket that guarantees full participation in American life.” Indeed, the GOP now accepts that if single mothers are to become self-supporting, they will need subsidized child care. And Michael Dukakis, in a manifesto of his own published earlier this year, urges his Massachusetts employment-training program as a model for the nation.

Large changes in AFDC may be closer than most people realize. Both chambers of Congress have passed a stringent “workfare” bill—in the Senate the vote was ninety-three to three—which is likely to become law before the end of this year. The belief behind the Family Security Act of 1988, which was largely drafted by Senator Moynihan, is that welfare creates a dependent underclass. Hence the view underlying the act that the time for solicitude has passed; discipline must be imposed. In particular, the statute’s sponsors seek to change the outlook and behavior of the 3.3 million women now on the assistance rolls. Under its provisions, even mothers with preschool children will be forced to find jobs and support themselves. Given the emphasis on compulsion, it is appropriate to ask how justified this policy is, and what are the changes it may bring about.


Today most Americans feel that mothers of young children should not be deterred from working if that is what they want to do. Many wives choose not to work, and that too is viewed as a legitimate option. However, women who receive welfare tend to be judged by rather different standards. Under current AFDC rules, any single mother is allowed to apply for a stipend that will enable her to stay at home with her children. Even so, states vary in their readiness to make these grants and in the amounts they offer. But it hardly needs remarking that the program is barely tolerated. In opinion polls most Americans rate it a failure, if not a scandal and a shame. Its initial purpose was to give needy citizens a respite, while they got back on their feet. However, the public is persuaded that too many recipients have made dependency a career: among all US families with children still at home, almost one in eight is now on the welfare rolls, while as recently as 1960 only one household in thirty-three was receiving AFDC.

The aim of the new Family Security Act, according to one of its sponsors, is “to get these people off the welfare rolls and onto the payrolls.” Most of “these people” are women, since it is mothers or in some cases grandmothers who head 90 percent of all AFDC households. (In the others, a disabled or unemployed father may be present.) Since at least 1965, when he wrote The Negro Family, Daniel Patrick Moynihan has been proposing policies designed to end the poverty and pathologies associated with life on welfare. Moynihan ensured that the committee report would carry a detailed discussion of the act’s major tenets. The report contains much useful information, as do the recent studies by David Ellwood of Harvard’s Kennedy School and Isabel Sawhill at the Urban Institute in Washington. While they share most of Moynihan’s concerns, they are less sanguine about some of his solutions.

A typical welfare family tends to be imagined as having half a dozen children, with the mother on the rolls for at least a dozen years. But as Table A (on the opposite page) shows this is one of several widely believed myths.


In fact, three quarters of the AFDC households have one or two children, while fewer than 10 percent have as many as four. Only about a fourth of the parents have been receiving assistance for five or more years; and fewer than 10 percent have been on AFDC for over a decade.

At the same time, the figures support the general view that most recipients are black or Hispanic, out of proportion to their share of the population. This is to be expected, since within those minorities more households are headed by women. While black and Hispanic women comprise 21 percent of all women aged fifteen to forty-four, they account for 45 percent of all women who head households, and 55 percent of those receiving AFDC. To look at the figures another way, altogether 57 percent of Hispanic single mothers are on welfare, as are 55 percent of the comparable black group, while among single white women with children the proportion is 34 percent.1

The figures also confirm popular concern that most of the mothers on AFDC have had their children out of wedlock. This itself is a significant shift from earlier years. Since 1973, the proportion of women receiving benefits because their husbands are unemployed, disabled, or deceased—generally seen as “legitimate” reasons—has declined by almost one half. And whereas the largest single category (46 percent) used to be women who were separated or divorced, it now consists of mothers who have never been married (52 percent; see Table A).

It is important to stress that most single mothers are not on welfare and in fact hold full-time jobs. Between 55 and 60 percent combine parenthood and employment, even when they have to settle for wages that barely support a household. Table B shows the incomes of the 6.3 million women who are single parents. That almost a quarter make more than $20,000 suggests how well they are coping, not only despite wage discrimination, but while caring for one or more youngsters, a burden borne by few fathers.


That a further 27 percent earn between $10,000 and $20,000 tells us that they are not on welfare, since they have found they can make more on the job market. That so many single mothers have become self-supporting has bolstered the view that the rest should.2


p class=”initial”>There is no way to live well on welfare. Even in the most generous states, stipends fall well below what the government defines as the poverty level. In 1986, annual cash allowances for a family with two children ranged from $1,380 in Alabama to $5,970 in Wisconsin, with the national average at $4,320. In 1986, it took an income of $8,740 for a family of three to escape the poverty category. Thus, as Table C shows, the typical AFDC stipend amounts to one seventh of the average American family income.


Here, too, the states vary greatly, with the ratio of welfare to average US income ranging from 6 percent in Mississippi to 19 percent in Vermont. Even adding the value of food stamps, housing subsidies, and free routine medical treatment seldom raises a welfare family above the poverty line.3 Recent years have been cutbacks in federal contributions, while states permit allowances to lag behind inflation. Whenever the government supports people on welfare, its manner of doing so ensures that they will be poor.

In fact, there are millions of women who were once on the welfare rolls and who are now self-supporting. Among them are wives who were not employed when their marriages broke up, and needed time to find a decent job. (Mothers can receive AFDC assistance while going to college.) Follow-up studies of the welfare rolls have shown that more than half of all recipients leave voluntarily before their third year. 4


The first part of Senator Moynihan’s Family Security Act deals with defaulting fathers. Moynihan likes to cite a remark by the economist Stanley Lebergott: “Our national code of accepted behavior includes the right of men to propagate children, and then desert them.” Lebergott calls this “men’s liberation,” which he finds more pronounced than its women’s counterpart. In 1950 only 6 percent of all households lacked a resident male parent. Now the proportion is approaching 25 percent. When marriages break up, the children almost always end up living with the mother. We seldom give this much thought, since people tend to assume that a woman will be a more natural parent. Few fathers ask for even partial custody since they take it as given that they cannot handle the job, a sentiment their wives usually share. (In the rare cases where a mother asks the father to take the children, she is seen as “walking out on the kids,” an epithet we rarely hear nowadays when a father packs his bags.) Except in the relatively few cases of well-to-do fathers who pay adequate child support, having the children remain with the mother means that either she or the taxpayers end up paying most of the bills. And from what we hear, the tax-paying public is not very happy about footing these costs.

A further consequence of “men’s liberation” is that fathers feel little obligation to support the children they have sired. Currently, 63 percent of single mothers receive no payments at all. And while 37 percent do, by no means all receive the agreed-upon sums. For those who do get checks, the yearly total averages $2,215, which must often be spread among several children. A California study found that men earning $45,000 were as likely to ignore court orders as those making $15,000. For these reasons, the Family Security Act intends to make delinquent fathers pick up a greater share of costs now covered by AFDC. If they do, the reasoning runs, the role of government will diminish, since it will only have to provide supplemental funds when parental support is inadequate.


p class=”initial”>As matters now stand, when child support is computed, the needs of the mother and the youngsters seem of secondary concern. The first factor is how much the father is judged “able” to pay. Judges, lawyers, and lawmakers generally presume that a man will need to keep 80 percent of his earnings for himself once he is on his own. This is not surprising since most of those involved in these decisions are men. Almost all divorced men remarry, moreover, and many start another round of children. So securing support for their first set can be uphill work. This may be why Isabel Sawhill sounds grateful for a recent Wisconsin law mandating minimum payments of 17 percent of the father’s earnings. However, the law also sets a ceiling of 34 percent, no matter how many children the man has produced.

Some strains might be eased if more single mothers married or remarried. In most cases, adding a man’s income to her own would double the family budget. However, such statistics as we have show that after the age of thirty, women face dismaying odds in the remarriage market. In the thirty-five-to-thirty-nine age group, only four in ten divorced women can expect to remarry. Former husbands face no similar hurdles, and usually choose younger women as their second mates.

However, the fastest growing group of AFDC families consists of women who were not married when their babies were born and have not married anyone since. As Table A noted, in recent years these mothers and their children have risen from under a third of the welfare rolls to more than half. In most of these cases, the mothers conceived children with no expectation that a male parent would be taking up residence. In most such cases, moreover, those participating in making the baby tend to be young and poor. So far as the young men are concerned, David Ellwood writes in Poor Support, “fathering a child out of marriage is often seen as a badge of manhood, rather than a troubling set of new responsibilities.” Thus fewer than 12 percent of out-of-wedlock fathers provide even token support payments. At the same time, girls choose to have and keep their babies; in their case, becoming a mother is often a badge of womanhood.

The legislators who drafted the Family Security bill apparently feel that if government gets tougher about making fathers pay, then many men may try to deny paternity. So the law will allow states to require “blood tests and genetic typing” for suspected fathers. That done, a federal bureau will then grade each state on its “paternity establishment percentage,” listing how many fathers have been found for out-of-wedlock children. The states will also make fathers supply their Social Security numbers when a baby is born, to be used by agencies charged with finding delinquent dads. If some fathers protest that they are unable to help, since they are unemployed or poorly paid, states may order them to take part in training programs, so they may augment their earning power.

This is an ambitious, if not intrusive, program, based on the premise that creating a human life carries long-term obligations. Unfortunately, many non-paying fathers simply lack the cash. A considerable number are among the 850,000 men now in our state and federal prisons or local jails. Others are drug addicts or homeless, or are youths who have yet to hold a steady job. While every dollar they pay will help, their prospects as providers are not very promising.

For this reason most of the provisions of the Family Security Act concern women. As has been noted, the aim is to get them off welfare and onto payrolls. First, mothers under twenty-two who have not graduated from high school will be obliged to complete a high school education. (They may do so, in some states, through special courses leading to a high school “equivalency” diploma.)

After that the act provides for “mandatory participation” in job-training programs for all women with children over the age of three. The 40 percent of current AFDC mothers with children under three would not have to take part, although many of them would still be required to leave the house and return to school. However, the bill also allows a state to limit its exemptions to women with children under the age of one; in that case, almost 90 percent of the women would have to attend school or training sessions. During this period, the bill says, AFDC allowances and medical benefits would continue, and some form—just what is not clear—of child care must be made available.

Upon completing a training program, a mother is presumed ready to go to work, and would be required to accept any “bona fide” offer of employment. The presumption is that such a job will pay wages that equal or exceed her welfare stipend, plus the value of food stamps and other services. The legislation also assumes that she will be able to make suitable arrangements for the care of her children. If a mother refuses to enter a training program or accept a “bona fide” job, she will be removed from the AFDC rolls. To ensure that her children will not suffer, “protective payments” for them may be made to a “third party,” bypassing the mother. Just who is meant by a “third party” and just how it will use the payments to care for a child, the act does not specify.

If all AFDC mothers with children over three will have to attend school or job-training sessions, and will have to take full-time jobs sooner or later, then 1.5 million new places for child care will have to be added to those now being used by working mothers. As it happens, the funding portion of the bill does not provide for new child-care services. Indeed it assumes that states will allow women on welfare to make much the same arrangements as currently employed mothers. The most recent census survey found that 31 percent of women who are now working leave their children at home, and 37 percent drop them off at someone else’s house. Thus only 24 percent have them in child-care centers, nursery school, or kindergarten, and 8 percent take them along to work. (Nor do these figures include after-school arrangements for children in the elementary grades.)

But mothers on AFDC may be more likely to need organized child care. This raises questions of quantity, quality, and cost. For one thing, we hear that children from lower-income families need special attention to compensate for the limitations at home, and experts insist that child-care centers should have professional staffs, with one college-trained adult for every three or four children. Yet, curiously, the report on the bill assumes that $120 a month—$6 a working day—will provide suitable care for youngsters of preschool age. The centers that Harvard University runs for its clerical employees charge upward of $825 a month and the much-cited Swedish system has similar costs. What kind of child care will the Family Security Act be able to provide with only a small fraction of those budgets? And what kind of job training will the women get?


Neither David Ellwood nor Isabel Sawhill expresses much confidence in the job-training programs currently available. Ellwood entitles his discussion “Big Promises, Modest Payoffs.” As he sees it, “No carefully evaluated work-welfare programs have done more than put a tiny dent in the welfare caseloads.” One project he cites spent close to $10,000 per participant: yet a follow-up study found that its graduates were averaging only $10 a week in wages more than a group that had not had any training. Sawhill reaches a similar conclusion about a five-state project. There, “employment rates for participants in the job-training programs were three to six percentage points higher than for other welfare recipients.” Applying those figures to the whole AFDC population, she estimates that the proportion of households receiving assistance would drop by only five percentage points. As it turns out, much of the training has less to do with specific jobs than with basic literacy, and with such matters as dress and deportment, with knowing how to fill out forms or use an alarm clock. Those who are placed in jobs usually start out doing unskilled work. Nor is this surprising. According to Senator Moynihan, half of New York City’s welfare mothers have never held any kind of job.

At the same time, there have been success stories. The most notable has been Massachusetts’ education and training program (“ET”), which has had the strong support and attention of Governor Michael Dukakis. He and Rosabeth Kanter write of its record in Creating the Future:

Since the program began in October 1983, more than 43,000 welfare recipients have found full-time or part-time employment through ET. Average full-time wages have provided families with income that doubled the average welfare grant; and of those who left welfare through the program, 86 percent were still off welfare one year later.

Dukakis and Kanter introduce us to Ruby, Dawn, Kathy, and Julie, whose case histories show how “self-motivated client participation” reduced the average stay on welfare in Massachusetts from forty months to twenty-eight months. Those on the rolls “for five years or more fell by more than 25 percent in three years.”

Is this simply campaign-season hyperbole? The analysis of the Massachusetts program by David Osborne, a Boston political writer, adds a few qualifications to the statistical claims of Dukakis and Kanter. Some two thirds of ET’s graduates have found full-time employment, defined as working thirty hours a week. In all, about 60 percent hold jobs that pay enough to get them completely off welfare. Of these, some would have found work without counseling or training, not least because in Massachusetts’ prospering economy employers are looking for workers. The state gains a further edge from the fact that 64 percent of its welfare mothers have completed high school, compared with 53 percent throughout the nation. And 51 percent of them are white, against 40 percent throughout the country; this means fewer face discrimination or come from segregated neighborhoods.

Osborne emphasizes, moreover, that the Massachusetts program is not compulsory: no one is forced to participate. By confining itself to volunteers, ET avoids any appearance of being Draconian, but it is open to the criticism, as Osborne says, that it is “placing those who are the most job-ready and ignoring the rest.” It may not be able to help the women who need help the most, and its methods may not be applicable under a compulsory plan such as the one Moynihan recommends. Osborne makes a convincing case, however, that ET has been imaginatively managed. Along with encouraging women who want to work, the state welfare officials have found ways to recruit employers and to minimize their risks. Thus, according to Osborne, one Massachusetts program can assure a company that it will have “reliable employees, because those who cannot perform—almost a third of those who begin the process—wash out before the company is asked to hire them.” He is particularly impressed with the record of the Bay State Skills Corporation, an umbrella agency overseeing several training plans. It keeps in constant touch with employers across the state—such as General Electric and Digital Equipment, and medical centers and cable television services—to ascertain their work-force needs. As one BSSC staff member put it, “We do not train for jobs which do not exist.”

The Dukakis approach has tended to bypass the deeper problems of many welfare recipients By choosing to concentrate on those most likely to turn in good performances, the program has built a record of success which can be displayed to the public. Still, you have to start somewhere. An experiment that begins with selective candidates usually comes up with tips and techniques that can be extended to people in more difficult situations. Certainly, a central lesson from Massachusetts is that welfare reform needs strong political support, something other pilot programs have lacked.


The central issue posed in the controversy surrounding AFDC and the Moynihan bill is whether welfare should cease being an option for most single mothers. Under the Family Security bill, after a series of training sessions, women now on AFDC will be expected to become self-supporting, when presented with “bona fide” offers, however much they may object to those jobs. David Ellwood calls this “imposed work,” and he condemns it on moral and practical grounds. He makes the point that only 27 percent of married mothers work throughout the year at full-time jobs. Moreover, he notes that as many as one in seven women on welfare have physical or mental disabilities that are not dissimilar to those afflicting men in similar surroundings.

So at this point several questions need sorting out. For most of us, work is not a matter of choice, since we must take some kind of job if we don’t want to live in poverty. Nor do we always end up in positions we would have preferred or chosen. Even so, we do not call our employment involuntary or imposed. Why, then, should the withdrawal of AFDC benefits be seen as forcing people to work? After all, welfare allowances are unlike unemployment benefits and Social Security pensions in that they have never been viewed as entitlements. Welfare dependency is not a right but a dispensation bounded by rules. In response, Ellwood asks why we worry so much about the presumed indolence of unmarried mothers. He presents a different view:

Single mothers ought to have the flexibility of wives. Some wives choose full-time work, some choose part-time work, and some do no market work at all. Many argue that single mothers should be able to make the same decisions.

If we provide sufficient welfare support to give single mothers a full choice, we have to recognize that some single mothers will choose not to work at all, just as many wives do.

Ellwood proposes raising AFDC payments above the poverty line, so that single mothers who choose to stay at home will have a measure of comfort and self-respect. But might not this attract even more young unmarried women to the welfare rolls? It is not that teen-agers have babies in order to receive welfare funds. In fact, many actually want to become mothers, and the availability of AFDC allows them to act out that desire. Others are deterred because they know that welfare will keep them in poverty. Ellwood wishes to raise the stipends, for obvious humane reasons. A concern he does not address is that more generous allowances might encourage an even greater number of fifteen-year-olds to embark on motherhood.

The ideological convictions many people have about the family and welfare are both intense and often contradictory. There is, for example, the conservative position that a good mother will want to stay at home with her children. And as they grow older, she will be there when they return from school. Once the children are on their own, making a home for her husband is an honorable occupation. Nor are these wives and mothers considered “dependent” in any invidious sense: what they do is deemed to be full-time, productive work. Many husbands are willing, even eager, to support this arrangement.5

Why, then, are conservatives so adamant about wanting to get single mothers out of their homes and onto full-time payrolls? The reasons become evident in The New Consensus on Family and Welfare, a report by the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute in Washington. It opens with the axiom that “no able adult should be allowed voluntarily to take from the common good without also contributing to it.” Married women who stay at home are not seen as a social cost, since they are supported by their husbands’ earnings. But it is only if she has such support that a woman can be said to contribute to “the common good” by attending to her children.

So the American Enterprise Institute’s position is that women who do not happen to have resident husbands should not ask to be subsidized by society. This stricture is most plainly applied to those who have children out of wedlock; women who engage in irresponsible reproduction should not ask for a free ride. Giving them money will only increase the tendency to reproduce. Nor is much more magnanimity shown for women who have gone through a divorce. If the wife initiated the break-up, she should have foreseen the consequences, not least of which is that husbands give very little to their former families. But an even larger number of women, many of them older and with teen-aged children, are left by their husbands. Interestingly, the American Enterprise Institute feels that they, too, should join the labor force. The implication seems to be that had she worked harder at being a good wife, she probably could have kept her husband.

The AEI report also suggests that mothers who rely on AFDC are bad models for their children. If they will not get or stay married, then they should redeem themselves by work. Thus becoming married to a wage earner is itself seen as redemptive. This reasoning is reflected in the federal law, which makes special provision for one group of single mothers—younger widows with school-age children, whose deceased husbands had held steady jobs and contributed to retirement accounts. Women in this position do not have to apply for welfare, nor are they expected to become self-supporting. Since they cannot be faulted for losing their husbands, the Social Security Act entitles them to survivor’s benefits. Currently some 300,000 widows are supported under this statute. They may receive as much as $20,000 a year, almost five times the average AFDC award. If they choose to work, as many do, they still receive separate payments to assist with their children.

The position of many feminists is ambiguous in different ways. Their strongest support has gone to women who want or need to work. Hence the stress in feminist programs on equal employment opportunities, on the right to have child care, and to be paid by the standard of comparable worth. (One common argument for abortion is that it allows women to continue with their careers.) True, some feminists have said that staying at home is a legitimate choice, yet the prevailing sentiment remains that both housewives and mothers on welfare should be making more of their lives. While it is never stated in so many words, the feminist ideal is a woman who combines a career and motherhood.

These and related issues are considered in Remaking the Welfare State, a collection of essays examining the campaigns against welfare by the Reagan and Thatcher governments. I particularly recommend the one by Wendy Sarvasy, who shows how both feminists and conservatives have used goals of the women’s movement “to justify forced paid employment for poor mothers.” If one accepts the view that households should be self-supporting, then those headed by women fall under this rubric. Current demands for equal treatment make it difficult to request special dispensations for family heads of a particular gender. Nor is Sarvasy pleased with measures that exact payments from defaulting fathers. In so doing, she argues, the state ensures that a “woman is still dependent on the father of her child for a private income supplement.” It would, she argues, be better to have an expanded system of public benefits than to sustain a moribund relationship.

What Sarvasy wants, very simply, is to have society acknowledge that “nurturing or caretaking is work,” whether it involves the “care of children, sick parents, or perhaps a friend with AIDS.” She wants taxpayers to be willing to pay for that work. She asks that a single standard of respect, if not payment, apply to middle-class housewives, widows receiving pensions, and single women striving to make it on their own. All are “citizen nurturers and should be treated as important members of society.” The word “nurturer” here seems to apply to practically any altruistic person, including many men. She also joins Ellwood’s plea for a guaranteed income well above the poverty level, to be available for many kinds of households. Where she goes further is in proposing salary checks for unpaid tasks we now deem to be labors of love or domestic duty. At no point does Sarvasy concern herself with the costs of her proposal. Quite clearly, it would require a drastic change in the way we define and distribute income, especially if public agencies were to set the salaries of “nurturers” and “carers.” Still, her essay raises important questions about what it means to contribute one’s efforts to the society one lives in, indeed what one chooses to consider “work.”

I have reserved for last what is perhaps the most troubling issue in the AFDC debate. Most of the mothers receiving welfare are Hispanic or black, whereas most of those who want to replace welfare with work are white. The motives of the welfare reformers are difficult to disentangle here. Thus there is the view that too many blacks and Hispanics are on a self-destructive course; and since liberal subventions have not worked, it is time for discipline. Hence some believe that if women are made to take productive jobs, it will improve their characters and deter them from having more babies. Single mothers who already work are held up as examples, as are many aliens and immigrants, particularly Asians, whose families, which often include grand-parents and relatives, tend to stick together and stay off welfare. Moreover, as Table D shows, some states have shown that women will find work if admission to welfare is kept sufficiently stringent.


It seems evident that many of the women who are now receiving AFDC in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Illinois would have managed to find jobs for themselves had they been living in Texas, New Hampshire, or Idaho. One problem with welfare is that it tends to cast its recipients as helpless people, who would languish without public assistance. The sterner states take the position that the great majority of single mothers are resourceful human beings, who can and will support themselves if that is made their only choice.

Or models showing poor women at work are found in the past, when there was nothing like today’s public assistance. In 1940, for example, some 2.4 million women—most of them black—supported themselves and their families by working as domestic servants in other people’s houses. The equivalent figure in today’s labor force would be 5.2 million. However, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that only 900,000 women now have “household employment.” Many are aliens; and the real figure may be higher because of unreported hiring and off-the-books wages. While seldom explicitly stated, the implication is often drawn that welfare mothers could do that kind of work.

Over half of the Hispanic and black mothers on AFDC had their babies out of wedlock and have not subsequently married. (For black mothers, the proportion exceeds 75 percent.) Not only conservatives regard this reproduction as irresponsible; liberals and others see it as unfair, above all, to the children and as posing the sad prospect of millions of children growing up without adequate care. Thus much of the debate over work derives from the fear that growing numbers of black and brown Americans are no longer under the kinds of controls that once restrained the poor, and are producing children who may be a burden to society. Here welfare dependency is seen as part of a wider malaise, involving not only drugs and crime, but a more generalized tendency to give up and drop out. The solutions proposed range from better kindergartens and counseling to sterilization and incarceration. But since rules and laws haven’t had much effect on men, it should not come as a surprise that policies, programs, and directives are increasingly being aimed at women.


p class=”initial”>At this point it is unrealistic to try to estimate the costs and gains of universal enforced work. Regarding Dukakis’s ET program, the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a business research group, concluded that “the savings to the state far outrun the cost of the program.” People who were once burdens under AFDC are now taxpaying workers. However, the report also notes that ET’s outlays will rise if it moves beyond volunteers to less promising candidates. But here successes will bring offsetting savings, since long-term welfare recipients tend to incur more expenses. The Family Security Act asks for an annual appropriation of about $2.8 billion, to assist states in providing child care and other services. According to its sponsors, the bill will be “budget neutral,” which means it will pay for itself and “not worsen the budget deficit.” In addition to trimming the welfare rolls and creating more taxpayers, it predicts new revenues by securing greater payments from fathers. And it can be argued that as more families become self-supporting, the tenor of society will improve, so we will not have to pay so much for things like remedial education and prison cells.

Still, Ellwood’s phrase “imposed work” lingers. The original aims of Aid to Families with Dependent Children were enlightened and humane. Women who found themselves on their own—most of them widowed or divorced—would be supported for a time while they created new lives. In addition, social workers would aid in this transition by advising on budget planning and other preparations. In fact, millions of single mothers still use welfare in this way, and they are not considered a problem. The difficulty is that too many others linger on the rolls for prolonged periods. Also, social work professionals have generally given up on this group. Hence the impulse to call AFDC a failure, and to remove it from the statute books.

Nor are the reasons mainly financial. The truth is that most Americans find the presence of a welfare class unseemly: it conflicts with the way we are supposed to organize ourselves. Since milder measures have not moved long-term recipients, they must be treated like those once castigated as slackers or work-shy. And therein lie the reasons for misgivings with the Family Security Act’s insistence on employment. By returning to the harsh rules of an earlier era, it spells the abandoning of yet another of the dreams that were going to make this century different.

  1. 1

    Unless otherwise indicated, the phrase “single mothers” refer to women who are widowed, separated, divorced, or have never been married. Similarly, the only households and families considered here are ones with children under the age of eighteen. 

  2. 2

    In addition to the 6.3 million single women who head households, there are another 1.8 million unmarried mothers who are not listed as heading households because they live with their own parents. Most of these younger mothers also receive benefits. Of the 3.3 million women family heads who are currently on AFDC, about 225,000 report that they are holding jobs, usually on a part-time basis. 

  3. 3

    Apart from food stamps, the money value of various welfare benefits is difficult to estimate. For example: a recipient may have a public housing apartment that could command a market rent of $700. Or her child might undergo a series of operations that cost Medicaid more than $50,000. 

  4. 4

    See Greg Duncan, Martha Hill, and Saul Hoffman, “Welfare Dependence Within and Across Generations,” Science (January 29, 1988), pp. 467–471. 

  5. 5

    George Gilder and Phyllis Schlafly have long espoused this view, and they speak for a not inconsiderable number of women who have no desire to work and husbands who want their wives at home. Nor is this entirely a right-wing position. See Deborah Fallows, A Mother’s Work (Houghton Mifflin, 1986), which I reviewed here in the issue of August 14, 1986.