Ask a Scholar: Welfare, Single Mothers, and Marriage

Lawrence M. Mead

Dear Ask a Scholar,

We have learned from many studies the indisputable fact that children fare best when raised by their own biological married parents, and that children raised by single mothers fare significantly worse in life. The welfare reform acts of 1996 and 1997 have been very successful in getting single welfare mothers to work as a condition of receiving other benefits. But the question arises, why wasn't marriage made part of the welfare reform of those years? Children already born were one thing, but why weren't future welfare benefits for raising children tied to marriage? Why wouldn't federal aid be linked to what is best for the people receiving it, especially children? The laws were a positive reassertion of the work ethic, and have proven to benefit women insofar as work improves their situation, but seem to have added to the increasing marginalization of men in poor communities and to continued fatherlessness in the homes of many poor children. And, in case anyone has failed to notice, the Obama Administration's hypothetical "Life of Julia" actually features Julia's ability to have a child on her own, no husband in evidence, as a positive achievement of government policies.        

Answered by Lawrence Mead, Professor of Politics and Public Policy at New York University.

As you say, welfare reform successfully made work a condition of receiving welfare. As a result, work levels rose among poor mothers and poverty fell.  Since single motherhood is a major cause of poverty, like failure to work, why don't we also require marriage as a condition of aid? The short answer is that if welfare mothers were married, they would probably not need aid in the first place. So requiring marriage to get aid is virtually synonymous with abolishing welfare – something the public would oppose.

A longer answer is that welfare has little leverage over whether the mothers marry. If we conditioned aid on marriage, the welfare rolls would radically shrink, but marriage rates would probably rise little if at all. The mothers would leave aid or do without it, but few would marry fathers whom they otherwise would not trust.

Welfare's power to affect lifestyle is real but limited. Work enforcement worked because many welfare mothers in principle want to work, so most responded to the work demand by taking jobs. But many left aid without working, and then government had no authority to require work. Most experts think the marriage problem is a lot more deep-seated than non-work. Poor women crave motherhood even if they must pursue it without husbands. So placing a marriage condition on welfare would achieve little. Attempting to promote marriage is also more controversial to the public than work requirements.

The work test does exert some indirect pressure against single parenthood, by making clear that women who bear children without husbands will not have an easy life. With or without welfare, they will have to work.  That message is probably one reason why unwed pregnancy among teenagers has dropped substantially since 1990. So work enforcement, which raises work levels, may be our best current policy against single parenthood as well.

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