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 …

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