The real welfare experts

July 17, 1996|By Ben Wattenberg

WASHINGTON -- Once again a welfare-reform bill seems to be moving from the Republican Congress to President Clinton's desk for signature or veto. The last time it got there, Mr. Clinton vetoed. He leaned in part on a hokum study from his own Department of Health and Human Services. It purported to show that reform would push a million children into poverty.

But the central question in the debate is this: ''Does welfare encourage illegitimacy?'' After all, children in the households of never-married women are about eight times more likely to grow up beneath the poverty line.

President Clinton has said that out-of-wedlock birth is our most serious domestic problem. He's right. About one out of every three children in America is born without a legal father. Only a few decades ago the rate was one out of 20. Illegitimacy is not only directly linked to poverty among children, but to crime, poor education, unemployment and second-generation welfare.

What they say, what they do

How can the question be answered? By measuring what people think (via attitudinal survey research) or how they act (via statistically valid social-science studies). As it happens, there is recent material from both realms, each suggesting a ''yes'' answer. (Yes, welfare encourages illegitimacy.)

Now, there are times when it is silly to ask the public about their opinions. Questions like ''Will China become a democracy?'' lead directly to another one: ''How would they know?''

What about our question: ''Does welfare encourage illegitimacy?'' Answers from the general public might well be put aside. How would they know? But suppose the same question were asked of welfare recipients. If anyone would know about the matter from first-hand experience, these are the people who would.

The Public Agenda Foundation surveyed welfare recipients earlier this year. The following statement was read to respondents: ''Welfare encourages teen-agers to have kids out of wedlock.'' Respondents were asked if they thought the problem was 1) ''very serious,'' 2) ''somewhat serious,'' 3) ''not too serious,'' or 4) ''not serious at all.''

Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of the welfare respondents said ''very serious.''

Remarkably, that was a somewhat higher score than was recorded by the general public (60 percent), blacks (59 percent) or whites (61 percent).

Other tough statements in the poll showed a similar pattern of high ''very serious'' response by the public, with even higher rates by welfare recipients. For example: ''The system undermines the work ethic and encourages people to be lazy'' (57 percent of the public and 62 percent of welfare recipients). ''People cheat and commit fraud to get welfare benefits'' (64 percent of the general public and 67 percent of welfare recipients).

No put-up job

This is no conservative put-up job. The guiding spirit of the Public Agenda Foundation is the distinguished social scientist and survey researcher Daniel Yankelovich. ''Moderate'' or "moderate liberal" would be his most appropriate appellation. And among the grant-givers for the study was the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, whose general position would seem to be somewhere in the realm of ''very liberal,'' ''extremely liberal'' and ''you've got to be kidding.''

There is meat for liberals in the study as well. Solid majorities of both the public and welfare recipients favor ''child care while mothers on welfare work or go to school'' and ''requiring enrollment in job training and education programs.''

The public has spoken. But what do social scientists say about the matter?

Surprise! Liberal social scientists have said no, welfare does not encourage illegitimacy. Conservative researchers have said yes, it does too.

So the National Academy of Sciences sponsored new research. An important paper by Professor Mark Rosenzweig, chairman of FTC the Economics Department at the University of Pennsylvania, shows a clear correlation: Among young, poor women, a 10 percent rise in cash welfare benefits yields a 12 percent rise in illegitimate births. Mr. Rosenzweig says it would work in reverse as well: A cut in benefits would reduce illegitimacy. Some other recent studies confirm the general direction of the Rosenzweig study.

That academic argument goes on. But who knows best, the politicized scholars or those who ended up ensnared in the welfare trap? Asking the question answers it. President Clinton should sign the bill and save the children.

Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, ''Think Tank.''

Pub Date: 7/17/96

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