Welfare's failure

January 21, 1994|By Robert Rector

WHILE it is now a big question mark whether the White House will get around to "ending welfare as we know it" in 1994, one thing is certain: The promise to do so is a confession by President Clinton that the War on Poverty is a failure.

For this Mr. Clinton deserves some credit, not only because he has chosen to take on powerful pro-welfare interest groups, but because he is right. The tragedy of the U.S. welfare system is that its perverse disincentives to get and stay married have weakened families, promoted out-of-wedlock births and led to a host of social ills.

America today is spending seven times as much in constant dollars on means-tested welfare as it was when Lyndon Johnson launched his "war" in 1965. All told, U.S. taxpayers have coughed up $4.9 trillion, or about $50,000 per household, on welfare since that time.

What has this massive expenditure of tax dollars bought? Paradoxically, though the welfare system has made the intact low-income family practically a thing of the past, material poverty as most of us understand it -- destitution or the inability to provide a family with nutritious food, decent clothing and reasonable shelter -- is virtually nonexistent in America. Despite faulty U.S. Census Bureau data that claim there are more than 30 million "poor" Americans (defined as an income of $14,343 or less for a family of four in 1992), various government reports show that:

* In 1991, nearly 40 percent of all "poor" households owned their own homes, the average home containing three bedrooms, a garage and a porch or patio. More than three-quarters of a million "poor" Americans own homes worth more than $100,000; more than 70,000 "poor" Americans own homes worth more than $300,000.

* The average "poor" American has twice as much living space as the average non-poor Japanese and four times as much as the average non-poor Russian. Only 8 percent of "poor" households are overcrowded; nearly 60 percent have more than two rooms per person.

* "Poor" Americans live in larger houses or apartments, eat more meat, and are more likely to own cars and dishwashers than is the general population of Western Europe.

* More than nine out of 10 "poor" homes have a color television; more than two-thirds of "poor" households own a car; and nearly two-thirds have air conditioning.

Welfare in America is not a failure because the poor have remained materially poor. It is a failure because it has destroyed something far more important than air conditioning or a color television: the family. It has done this by replacing work with dependence and, more important, by making poor fathers economically irrelevant. Welfare pays families more when a working father is gone and withdraws benefits when he stays. When the War on Poverty began, roughly one black child in four was born out of wedlock; today the figure is two out of three. Among whites, the illegitimacy rate for low-income high-school dropouts has reached 48 percent.

Single-parent welfare homes are abysmal environments for raising children. The prospects for success in mainstream society for the children of such homes are extremely limited. These children are far more likely to fail in school, and, predictably, more likely to end up on welfare themselves as adults. Young black men raised without fathers commit twice as much crime as young black men raised by both a mother and a father. And although crime is spreading, it is still the low-income neighborhoods themselves that suffer the brunt of violence from these young men.

Strangely, the Clinton administration's rhetoric on the need for welfare reform has not translated into any plan to reduce illegitimacy and promote marriage. Mr. Clinton's proposal to require welfare recipients to perform community service after two years on the rolls, an idea recently endorsed by state and local welfare administrators, is a good idea if it comes to pass. But getting a welfare mother into a community-service job will do nothing to create the stable, two-parent household vital for raising healthy children.

As one of Congress' leading advocates of welfare reform, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., said recently, "We don't have a health-care crisis in this country. We do have a welfare crisis." As President Clinton decides where to focus his energies this year, he would do well to consider Moynihan's words.

Robert Rector is senior family and welfare issues analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

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