Single Moms and Welfare Don't Stigmatize

February 06, 1994|By SARAH FERGUSON

As President Clinton steps up his efforts to reform the welfare system, its primary beneficiary -- the single mom -- is coming under increasing attack.

Citing statistics that show that nearly a third of babies are now born out of wedlock, conservative commentator Charles Murray fired the first shot last October in an op-ed piece urging that we abolish welfare and "re-stigmatize" single motherhood. Since then a growing chorus of voices -- from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan to Mr. Clinton's own Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala -- have targeted single moms as the root cause of America's social unraveling.

This newfound consensus is fueled in part by the growth in unwed childbearing among whites. As Mr. Murray points out, the bulk of illegitimate babies are white. Liberals, normally reluctant to attack the irresponsibility of black women, now feel free to join conservatives in the new rush to judgment on single motherhood.

What's being overlooked is the underlying sexism and myth-making that is fueling the assault.

Contrary to popular belief, women on welfare are having fewer children, not more. The average family size has dropped from three children in 1969 to 1.9 in 1989. Not only are fertility rates of welfare recipients lower than those of the general population, but studies show that the longer a woman remains on the rolls, the less likely she is to give birth.

Moreover, although single moms are more likely to be poor, marriage is no magic bullet: 46 percent of American kids living in poverty have both a mom and dad caring for them.

What's alarmed Mr. Murray and other reformers is the surging birthrate among teens, which jumped 19 percent between 1986 PTC and 1990. Murray blames the availability of welfare, which he says makes single motherhood economically feasible and hence socially acceptable.

Considering that the real value of welfare payments has declined by 43 percent since 1970, to argue that welfare is an economic incentive for increased childbearing is nonsensical.

A more obvious explanation is declining access to contraception and abortion over the last decade because of a 27 percent cutback in federal funds for family planning services. Those states where abortion access has been most restricted now show conspicuously high teen birth rates.

The increase in out-of-wedlock births also reflects the dearth of opportunity for growing numbers of young women today. Studies show that teens are more likely to bear children when they perceive little prospect for jobs or educational advancement. In other words, poverty breeds children, not welfare.

Despite the recent upturn, American teens now give birth to far fewer kids than they did in the '60s and '70s. The only real increase has been in the number of unwed teen moms. "What's changed is that shotgun marriages are out," says welfare rights advocate Theresa Funicello. "What the mothers [of teen women] found out is that boys are abusive when they're forced into marriages they don't want. You couldn't then, and you can't now, force a man to be responsible if he doesn't want to be."

Moreover, despite President Clinton's claim, welfare is not a way of life for most welfare dependents. More than 70 percent exit the system within two years of receiving assistance. Unfortunately, a majority of those women return to the rolls within a year or two of getting off.

"The issue is not how to get people off AFDC and working, but what's compelling them to come back on," says Jodie Levin Epstein of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy. "What we've found is that what's mostly available to these women is low-wage, short-term employment, often without health care or day care benefits. If you're a single mom, as soon as your kid gets sick, you're back on the rolls."

If welfare makes anyone irresponsible, it's men. By denying benefits to married couples, welfare exonerates men from supporting the children they father. Studies show that most babies born to unwed teens were fathered by men over the age of 20.

Yet besides stepped-up efforts to enforce child support payments, the bulk of welfare reform measures are overwhelmingly punitive toward women.

One proposal, for example, would refuse welfare to unwed moms who decline to identify the fathers of their children, and reduce AFDC benefits until paternity is established. The proposal fails to exempt those women who decline to identify the father for fear of abuse. Yet battery is a primary reason women go on welfare in the first place.

Welfare reform is clearly a priority for the country. But conjuring up the single mom as the culprit for America's social ills will not only deepen false stereotypes about poor women. It may well backfire.

Rather than pushing women shot-gun style into more responsible relationships, it will create enormous resentment and anger as they perceive themselves unfairly blamed for a ravaging of the social fabric that has gone way beyond the inner city.

If more rage than healing comes out of the proposed reforms 10 years from now people may wonder if it might not have been more cost effective to show respect to hard-working single moms and their mothering than to punish them.

Sarah Ferguson writes for the Village Voice, Esquire and other publications. She wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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