In the fall of 2006, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) reported that out-of-wedlock births had reached a record high (Hamilton, Martin, and Ventura 2006). At about the same time, new Census Bureau figures, as interpreted by the New York Times, indicated that married couples for the first time represent less than half the nation's households (Roberts 2006).
Following ten years of welfare reform that was supposed to discourage unmarried childbearing and encourage marriage and two-parent families, these reports are perplexing news, indeed. Whatever the budgetary savings, welfare reform has failed from the standpoint of the family. The figures "clearly show that the impact of welfare reform is now virtually zero," says Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, "and we are going back to the way things were before welfare reform" (qtd. in Wetzstein 2006).
It has been well known since at least the Moynihan report in 1965 that welfare serves as a disincentive to marriage and an incentive to divorce and unwed childbearing. Yet no explanation has been forthcoming for why cutting back on welfare has failed to reverse the trend. In fact, this failure raises far-reaching questions about our entire approach to what has become known as "family policy."
As implemented thus far, welfare reform is unlikely to make a large difference and remains a step behind the problem. The continued rise in out-of-wedlock births no longer proceeds only from low-income teenagers. Indeed, in terms of" this target population, welfare reform does appear to have had some impact. The NCHS reports that the birth rate among girls ages ten to seventeen dropped in 2005 to the lowest level on record. Births to unwed women in their late twenties, thirties, and forties, however, have risen and account for the now-record numbers. Inspired perhaps by books such as Rosanna Hertz's Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice: How Women Are Choosing Parenthood Without Marriage and Creating the New American Family (2006) and Peggy Drexler's Raising Boys Without Men (2005), or at least the subject of these books, these women are joining their low-income counterparts in moving beyond divorce to dispense with marriage altogether. Yet the children of divorce still almost double the 1.5 million out-of-wedlock births annually in the continued growth of single-parent homes. Given 4.1 million total births annually, this problem now touches virtually every family in America.
Because of these trends, the perception has become widespread that this seemingly intractable problem proceeds primarily from "culture" and that policy remedies are therefore pointless until the culture changes. James Q. Wilson throws up his hands and expresses the frustration and paralysis: "If you believe, as I do, in the power of culture, you will realize that there is very little one can do" (2002). Given such a response, the initiative will likely pass to congressional liberals who hope to roll back welfare reform altogether.
The George W. Bush administration's approach seems to be predicated on this same cultural assumption. Programs to encourage "healthy marriage" by building "relationship skills" and inculcating methods of "conflict resolution" and "child behavior management" are largely continuations of programs conceived during the Clinton administration to "promote responsible fatherhood." So far there is little evidence that these programs have any measurable effect on marriage or out-of-wedlock birth rates, and some observers question the wisdom of the federal government's operating family therapy (but see Birch et al. 2004). Financed by a small portion of welfare funds, these programs arguably serve, like welfare itself, as a form of political patronage, increasing the client population on the public payroll.
Although the role of culture should certainly not be discounted, the problem is also driven by federal policies and funding that welfare reform did not remedy and may even have exacerbated. Once again we are faced with a question of incentives created by spending. Yet the problem has grown more complex than simply disincentives to work and family formation created by public assistance. Ignored thus far is how expanding welfare-originated entitlement programs have extended the subsidy on single-parent homes to the affluent. Moreover, the perverse incentives create perverse behaviors not only among the population, but also by governments.
It is not called the welfare "state" for nothing. Unnoticed by reformers and even more striking than the economic effects have been subtle but far-reaching political developments. These developments involve the quiet metamorphosis of welfare from simply a system of public assistance into nothing less than a miniature penal apparatus, replete with its own tribunals, prosecutors, police, and punishments: juvenile and family courts, "matrimonial" lawyers, child protective services, domestic violence units, child-support enforcement agents, and other elements. Originally created to treat ills endemic to low-income, single-parent homes, this machinery is increasingly intervening with police actions in middle-class families. Kafkaesque in its logic, this machinery lends plausibility to the warnings, most famously by F. A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom (1944), that socialist and welfare-state principles would eventually threaten not only economic prosperity, but also civil freedom.
The Rise of Child Support
The welfare subsidy on single-mother homes was never really ended so much as it was shifted. Reformers essentially replaced welfare with child support, on the reasonable but largely irrelevant principle that fathers rather than taxpayers should be supporting their children (which is irrelevant for reasons we will see). Whether this principle was justified or not, the consequences were profound. To begin with, the reform shifted the role of welfare agencies from distributing money to collecting it--not from taxpayers but from fathers. The welfare machinery suddenly became a mechanism for raising revenue. Although this revenue ostensibly passes through government hands and is distributed to mothers and children, the process is far from straightforward. What began as an alternative to taxation for purposes of supporting government-dependent children has begun to function as an alternative to taxation for other purposes as well, and whether the system will continue to be contained in its previous limited role is unclear.
Child support thus transformed welfare from public assistance into law enforcement, creating a federal plainclothes police force with no clear constitutional authority. Because of the moral opprobrium that attaches to fathers who have allegedly abandoned their children, this machinery is marked by an often ill-defined punitive quality. At the same time, it commands enforcement methods and sanctions far more draconian than those normally permitted in collecting taxes, and it is limited by far fewer protections for those accused of nonpayment.
This machinery was already well developed by the time Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) in 1996, so this measure might be seen as simply one stage in the politicization of a welfare system that could no longer be permitted to grow indefinitely. Because substituting criminal law enforcement for government handouts was politically more palatable than cutting welfare altogether, such a measure was probably inevitable.
Yet even at this point child support was no longer functioning simply as a substitute for welfare, as it was originally designed. During the 1980s and early 1990s, it had already begun to serve as a subsidy to middle-class divorce. It had also become a funding mechanism for state governments, allowing them to generate revenue through the generation of fatherless children. Through child support, governments throughout the United States found they could turn a profit from the growth of single-parent homes.
Child support became politicized by the early 1990s, when parents who allegedly fail to pay--"deadbeat dads'--became the subjects of a national demonology, and child support went from being a minor matter affecting a few people on the margins of society to a sacred political cow in the national vocabulary. "On the left and on the right, the new phrase to conjure with is 'child support,'" writes Bryce Christensen, who notes that politicians see it as "the best rhetoric in the world": "a rhetoric unifying political figures" from both parties (2001, 63). Although Ronald Reagan seems to have coined the term deadbeat dads, it was Bill Clinton who took it on the campaign trail. "We will find you!" he famously intoned at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. "We will make you pay!" During the debate leading up to welfare reform, George Gilder warned of the bipartisan bandwagon being marshaled to punish private citizens who had been pronounced guilty by general acclaim:
The president wants to take away their driver's licenses and occupational accreditations. Texas Governor George W. Bush wants to lift their hunting licenses as well. Moving to create a generation of American boat people, Senator Bill Bradley is leading a group of senators seeking to seize their passports. Congressman Henry Hyde wants to expand the powers of the IRS to confiscate their assets. Running for president, Lamar Alexander wants to give them "jail time," presumably so they won't vote. Also running for president, Alan Keyes suggests caning, recommending "a trip to Singapore to learn how to administer a civil beating." Governor William Weld in Massachusetts wants to subpoena their DNA, put liens on their houses, and hound them through the bureaucracies of 50 states. (1995, 24) (Presidential candidate Barack Obama recently revived this political line. "We have too many children in poverty in this country," he told a civil rights group in early...