Hold Off on Welfare Change

By , Christopher Jencks is professor of sociology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and is the author of "Rethinking Social Policy" (Harvard Press, 1992). This article is excerpted from the Fall 1992 issue of "The American Prospect."

IF it does nothing else, Bill Clinton's proposal to limit Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) collections to two years should at least give pause to those who see Mr. Clinton as a middle-of-the-road Democrat committed to the status quo. A two-year time limit would be the biggest change in AFDC since Congress established the program in 1935. A two-year limit would cut the number of recipients by more than 70 percent. But what happens when a recipient's two years are up?

Studies of both welfare mothers and single mothers who work suggest that in the absence of noncash benefits, they need at least $15,000 a year to pay for their food, housing, utilities, clothing, medical care, and other expenses. Welfare mothers get far less than this from AFDC, but they usually supplement their meager benefits with unreported income from work or from relatives, boyfriends, or ex-husbands.

Census data show that few welfare mothers can earn $15,000 a year. Most are young and few have attended college. Those with the lowest potential earnings are the 18- to 24-year-old high school dropouts. These women typically earned about $5.50 an hour in 1990. Since most also held jobs that involved a lot of layoffs, short weeks, and turnover, even those who tried to work steadily were unlikely to earn more than $10,000. Many earned even less. Today, with unemployment much higher than it was in 1990, the

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figures would be lower.

We can, of course, raise single mothers' potential earnings through education and job training. But the best available data suggest that even two years of full-time schooling can be expected to raise a high school dropout's potential earnings by only 10 or 15 percent. Less intensive programs, which are more practical for mothers with young children and cost the taxpayer less, usually yield even smaller gains. Realistically, then, we have to assume that a lot of welfare mothers will only earn $10,000 or $ 11,000 a year after training. If they are to support their children, they will need to get $4,000 or $5,000 from other sources.

Ideally, absent fathers should fill this gap. But the best available data, collected in 1987, suggest that the typical absent father earns so little that under current law he will be ordered to pay only about $2,000 a year in child support. In many cases, moreover, the absent father is in jail, unemployed, or has moved, so he will not pay anything.

These stubborn facts mean that even if they work and get child support, many single mothers will continue to need some help from the government. The simplest way to provide such help is by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which gives employed parents with children a refundable credit if their earnings are low enough. But an EITC that could raise a single mother's income from $9,000 to $15,000 seems unlikely to pass anytime soon.

We need to supplement the EITC with programs that cut single mothers' expenses. Ideally, such programs should cover all children, regardless of income, to ensure that the programs win broad political support. Even if we remain unwilling to provide universal health insurance, for example, we should at least make Medicare cover all children whose parents pay Social Security taxes.

We should also eliminate income-tax deductions for dependent children and replace them with food stamps for children at all income levels. All families with children could get a year's worth of stamps when they filed their income-tax returns, minimizing auditing expenses. Finally, we could provide families in which all adults worked full time with tax credits for, say, half the cost of enrolling their children in a preschool or after-school program that met certain minimal educational standards.

Only if we do these things will it become possible for a single parent to support a family by working regularly in a minimum-wage job. At that point we could impose Clinton's two-year time limit on AFDC. But these programs do not help single mothers who cannot find steady work. What are we to do for them?

So far as I can see, single mothers who cannot find jobs after their AFDC runs out have no more - and no less - claim on the public purse than married parents who cannot find work after their unemployment benefits run out. If a jobless, single mother is mentally or physically ill, she should get disability benefits just like anyone else. If she cannot find work because the whole economy is in recession, her AFDC benefits should be extended, just as unemployment benefits should be.

Setting up a program that allowed all single mothers to make ends meet would not be cheap. Such a program could easily raise government expenditures by $30 billion to $50 billion. If we extend benefits to children in two-parent households, the bill could be even higher, as it usually is in Europe.

Why should a program that asks more people to work end up demanding more money from taxpayers? We know that several million single mothers are currently getting by on low-wage jobs that pay less than $15,000 a year. Why can't we just insist that welfare mothers do the same thing?

The answer is that single mothers with low-wage jobs currently survive by making arrangements that not all mothers are willing or able to make. One lives with her mother. Another has a boyfriend who beats her up but whom she does not throw out because he also helps her pay the rent. A third leaves her children home alone after school because she cannot afford to pay child care. But we cannot create a system that assumes all single mothers will make such agreements. If we try, a lot more single mothers wi ll be unable to make ends meet, and we will end up with more families in shelters and more abandoned children in foster care.

With economic growth rates low and resistance to new taxes high, improving the position of working, single mothers is likely to take at least another decade of incremental change, and even that will suffice only if both liberals and conservatives recognize the long-term benefits of such a strategy. That means major changes in AFDC will also have to wait.

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