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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, by 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)

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

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.

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.

  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.

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