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Welfare state begets family breakdown

By W. James Antle III
web posted May 6, 2002

President Bush's proposal to spend $300 million to encourage marriage among those dependent on welfare highlights the symbiotic relationship between the welfare state and family breakdown.

One of the most important observations in David Frum's excellent analysis of the modern American conservative movement, Dead Right, focused on the futility of social conservatives ignoring the expanding welfare state in favor of efforts to preserve the family and traditional cultural mores. The welfare state, by assuming functions typically belonging to the family and therefore making aspects of family life economically redundant, actually encourages family fragmentation. In a recent National Review On-Line piece defending the president's proposal, the writer Maggie Gallagher raised an equally important corollary: The proliferation of broken families encourages the growth of the welfare state by increasing the demand for government social services.

It is not difficult to imagine why this is so. As Frum and others have demonstrated, means-tested welfare programs provide benefits to single mothers and their children and thus directly subsidize the decision to have children outside of marriage. Even popular programs tailored to the middle class, like Social Security and Medicare, absolve family members of their responsibility to one another and enable people to achieve a level of economic security in retirement outside the context of their families. It is also true that when families are not formed, people must turn to government to provide the support they would have otherwise received from their families. Women who have children out of wedlock are much more likely to go on welfare and be in an economically dependent position.

"To expect a nation of fragmented families to turn away from an expanding welfare state is to expect a miracle," Gallagher wrote in NRO. "The original social democrats of Europe saw this quite clearly, which is why (especially in Sweden) they crafted social-welfare proposals with an eye to deinstitutionalizing marriage, making mothers less dependent on fathers but more dependent on government."

Case in point is the post-Great Society collapse of the urban black family. As the government assumed the economic role of the father in many of these families, the number of fatherless families increased dramatically. By the mid-1990s, the black out-of-wedlock birth rate was 68 percent nationally and over 80 percent in some cities. Welfare dependency and family breakdown complemented one another and indeed cyclically encouraged one another.

The point isn't necessarily to defend the president's specific marriage-based welfare reform policy. To a certain extent, the welfare state is inherently anti-family and conservatives should always be cautious of attempts to use it to promote the family or for other conservative purposes. Conservative welfare reformers, such as the Heritage Foundation's estimable Robert Rector, will always be faced with this dilemma: Ultimately, just as you cannot simultaneously insure that people who work always are economically better off than people who do not while maintaining an adequate economic existence for those who do not work, you cannot simultaneously promote marriage and the traditional family while subsidizing lifestyle choices outside of those contexts.

But it is important to notice that the government programs that we Americans like often act as obstacles to the type of family life we claim we want to again have in this country. Similarly, the resistance to traditional families evidenced by certain types of people the late Murray Rothbard described as "modal libertarians" creates economic circumstances that invite welfare dependency.

Kate O'Beirne recently observed that 40 percent of American girls will become pregnant at least once before their 20th birthdays; 80 percent of teen mothers are unmarried and 75 percent will end up on welfare within five years. This in an exponentially greater welfare participation rate than seen among women who delay childbirth until they are older, more educated and married.

Charles Murray has theorized that if it weren't for the welfare state, it would be as difficult to have babies outside of marriage as it was in 1960 and eventually it would be as rare. One of the reasons that this seems such a radical solution is that we have so many such families in existence now and their economic position seems inexorably tied to the continued availability of welfare benefits.

Frum noted in Dead Right that if capitalism emancipates the individual appetite, welfarism makes it less risky to indulge in some of the excesses of those appetites. If families do not house, feed, clothe, educate and provide for children, the government will be called upon to assume those roles. As families disintegrate, government intervention becomes even greater. As Gallagher pointed out in NRO, divorce involves the government in decisions over who will have custody of children, for how long and under what circumstances. We have in recent years seen where these determinations have been made according to the values of those making the decisions, with some on the right denying custody to parents with nontraditional social mores and some on the left denying custody to parents with politically incorrect views or habits. In an era where activists decry a parent's choice to smoke as "child abuse," it is easy to see failed marriages and broken families creating opportunities for unprecedented government intervention in our lives.

The indirect costs of family breakdown to taxpayers are equally staggering. Children in broken or never-formed families are consistently found to be much more likely to have behavioral problems, use drugs, engage in crime, drop out of school and fail economically. This translates into higher costs for dealing with illiteracy, unskilled labor, crime control, drug and alcohol treatment and welfare dependency.

The roadblock initiatives such as President Bush's run into is that while there is a growing consensus about the importance of marriage and families, especially to children, there is little consensus as to what the implications of this view should be for public policy. In fact, even steadfast supporters of the traditional family are reluctant to use any public policy tool to advance their objectives. But perhaps they need only to stop supporting policies already in place that contribute to the loosening of family ties.

Political correctness prevents even many social conservatives from saying what needs to be said about the family: That if as many people believe that it is the government's responsibility rather than the family's to provide child care and other basic parental roles as currently believe it is the government's responsibility rather than the family's to educate children, there is no way for society's most basic social unit to survive intact. But the notion that strong families can indefinitely survive alongside a large-scale cradle-to-grave welfare state that increasingly assumes traditional family functions is an illusion. If "society" has an obligation to children that is coequal with that of parents, then look for bureaucrats to play a larger role in raising children.

Perhaps a paraphrase of the old bumper sticker slogan is in order. The welfare state is not a family value.

W. James Antle III is a senior writer for Enter Stage Right.

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