WASHINGTON — DOES welfare promote the birth of out-of-wedlock children?
As the Clinton administration prepares to unveil its welfare-reform proposal, the issue of illegitimacy has emerged as a flash point in the debate over how to end welfare dependency in the United States.
The most vocal figure in the anti-welfare camp is Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He opines that illegitimacy is at the root of all social problems facing the nation. The solution, he says, is to make out-of-wedlock childbirth economically nonviable, ending government aid to single mothers and letting family, friends, boyfriends, and charity take care of them.
Ending all welfare completely is not about to happen, but Mr. Murray's proposal has some resonance on Capitol Hill. This week, Rep. Jim Talent (R) of Missouri introduced a welfare-reform bill that would eliminate welfare benefits to unwed parents under age 21 who give birth more than a year after the legislation becomes law.
Echoing Murray, Mr. Talent draws a causal link between the steady rise in welfare spending and illegitimacy. In 1960, unwed mothers gave birth to 5 percent of births in the US. Today, the figure is 30 percent (22 percent among whites, 68 percent among blacks). Over the same period, annual spending on welfare programs has risen from $50 billion a year to more than $250 billion. In the last 24 years, the number of welfare families headed by single mothers has doubled.
Liberals scoff at such statistics. ``As anyone who's ever taken a Statistics 101 course knows, the fact that two things are occurring at the same time does not necessarily prove that one thing is causing the other,'' said Mark Robert Rank, an associate professor of social work at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., speaking this week at a forum on illegitimacy sponsored by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Professor Rank says his research leads to the conclusion that women on welfare have a lower birth rate than those in the general public. The vast majority of welfare families have one to three children. Rank also states that, since 1970, the real value of welfare payments declined by 45 percent: Then, the median state benefit under Aid to Families with Dependent Children was worth $799 (factoring for inflation). In 1992, the figure was $435. Furthermore, states with the most generous benefits packages tend to have the lowest illegitimacy rates and vice versa, which contradicts the notion that women have babies to receive more benefits, Rank says.
``It is true that poor women have always had proportionately more out of wedlock babies,'' says Frances Fox Piven, a professor of political science at City University of New York. ``In all likelihood that is because poor men are not available as good husbands, and because the future of these young women is quite bleak. They don't see education and the occupational world as a way of making a life, and so they try to make a family.''
Planned Parenthood suggests that at least part of the solution is to improve education about, and access to, contraception. Nearly three-fourths of the organization's contraceptive patients are living at or below the poverty level, says Jane Johnson, a Planned Parenthood vice-president.
HE Clinton administration's welfare-reform proposal, due out soon, aims to get welfare recipients off the dole and working within two years, with emphasis on education and training for work. The plan will enable states to deny increases in benefits when recipients have more children, an experiment already in place in New Jersey, Georgia, and Arkansas. The administration's plan also would require unwed teen-agers to stay with their families or a responsible adult in order to receive benefits. Speaking at a local junior high earlier this year, President Clinton emphasized the need for youth to take responsibility in child-bearing, saying: ``The first thing you can do is make up your mind you're not going to have a baby until you are old enough to take care of it - until you're married.''
Poor socialization of boys in female-headed households will only lead to new generations of irresponsible fatherhood, said Charles Murray at the Planned Parenthood symposium. ``Men are a problematic sex,'' Mr. Murray said. ``We fight more, have more learning disabilities; then we hit puberty. At that point, if we have not had the civilizing - and I use the word advisedly - force of an adult male behaving responsibly in our lives, we're in big trouble.''