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Does Welfare Cause Illegitimacy?

Think Tank Transcripts: Does Welfare Cause Illegitimacy

MR. WATTENBERG: Hello. I'm Ben Wattenberg. The out-of-wedlockbirth rate, illegitimacy, is soaring in America. Some argue that thewelfare system is to blame. Are we hurting those we want to help?

Joining us are political scientist Charles Murray of the AmericanEnterprise Institute and author of the bestselling book,LosingGround; professor of history and Pulitzer prize winner RogerWilkins of George Mason University; Sheldon Danziger, professor ofsocial work and public policy at the University of Michigan andauthor ofUneven Tides: Rising Inequality in America; andeconomist Glenn Loury of Boston University, author of One By Onefrom the Inside Out.

The first question before the house is this: Does welfare causeillegitimacy? This week on Think Tank.

Last fall, Charles Murray electrified the welfare debate byre-asking a simple but important question: Does welfare causeillegitimate births? His answer: Yes. Murray's solution: Cut offwelfare, period. His argument got people talking, including thePresident of the United States, who said, 'He did the country a greatservice. He and I have often disagreed, but I think his analysis isessentially right.' But on cutting welfare, Clinton also said,'There's no question that that would work. The question is, is itmorally right?'

Now, for years I resisted some of Charles Murray's views.Recently, however, I went to Kansas City and asked some welfarerecipients what they thought.

(Videotape segment.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Some people say look,these young women are goingout and getting pregnant in order to get this welfare money. I don'tbuy that --

WOMAN #1: No -- WOMAN #2: Some are. 'Cause the more children youhave the more your check goes up. And there are young girls out therewho will brag about it. They'll say 'I have four kids, so I get this,this, this amount money. I get this, this, this amount of foodstamps.' There is a certain amount of people who do that.

MR. WATTENBERG: Do you agree with Yetra that there are young women--

WOMAN #3: Yes.

MR. WATTENBERG: -- out there --

WOMAN #3: There is. MR. WATTENBERG: -- having children just to getthe welfare?

WOMAN #3: Right. There are women out there just having childrenjust to get it.

WOMAN #4: That's what they'd rather do.

WOMAN #3: And sit down at home and do nothing, and collect thechecks.

(End of videotape segment.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, of course, that's only anecdotal. Andremember, all they said was this only involves some mothers. Let'stake a look at the data. First, we know that the cash benefit, aid tofamilies with dependent children, AFDC, has actually declined invalue over the last 25 years. But the number of people on welfarewent up. In 1960, only about 3 million Americans received AFDCbenefits. Today that number has grown to more than 14 million. But ifrecipients are getting less cash, why did more people sign up forwelfare?

Well, AFDC is not the sum total of all welfare benefits. The totalpackage, including Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies, childnutrition programs, increased dramatically in the last 30 years. Theestimated value of this 'greater welfare' just about doubled.

What's the bottom line? Total federal spending on all welfareprograms rose from less than $5 billion in 1965 to almost $160billion in 1992 in constant dollars. And what happened to theillegitimate birth rate during that time? It skyrocketed from 7percent of all births in 1965 to almost 30 percent today.

The question posed by the data is this: Does welfare encourageillegitimacy or are other factors at work? In the language of socialscience, are these two trends causal or coincidental?

Charles Murray, you seem to be driving this bus. Does welfarecause illegitimate births?

MR. MURRAY: If you mean is it the single, solitary cause, ofcourse not. But look, think of a woman having a baby out of wedlockas two major clumps of forces. Some of them are economic. Can she orcan she not afford to take care of the child? Some of them aresocial; social stigma. What the welfare system did was make itpossible to take care of a baby without having a husband.

There was a dramatic change in that from the early 1960s into the1970s, and the changes in the system since then haven't changed thatbasic reality. You can have a baby without a husband and take care ofit. And that's crucial.

MR. WATTENBERG: Sheldon Danziger, I think you don't agree withthat, from what I have read of your work.

MR. DANZIGER: No, I don't agree with it. We have a problem withthe welfare system and we have a problem with increasing numbers ofchildren being born out of wedlock. The effect on illegitimacy ratesand out-of-wedlock birth ratio are very, very small based on theresearch I've seen. I would place the driving forces well beyondwelfare. And I would point to the very large increases in divorcerates and out-of-wedlock birth rates for people who never go onwelfare.

MR. WATTENBERG: What about that, Charles? He says --

MR. MURRAY: I find it absolutely fascinating that illegitimacy isso intensely concentrated among very low-income women. I'll give youan example. White women -- don't talk about blacks --among whitewomen who are below the poverty line in the year prior to birth,about 44 percent of all their children are out of wedlock. Whitewomen anywhere above the poverty line in the year prior to birth,it's 6 percent of births. Now, come on. There's got to be somebizarre reason why very poor women suddenly find it desirable to havebabies out of wedlock, whereas not poor women don't.

MR. WATTENBERG: Glenn, what do you think?

MR. LOURY: Well, I mean, I think there's a sense in which, almostby definition, Charles is right. If you don't have a way of livingwhen you go down a certain path, fewer people will pursue that path.And therefore, the fact that welfare, greater welfare, not just AFDC-- food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance and so forth -- isavailable makes viable a way of life that would not be viableotherwise. We've got a dilemma. And the dilemma is, if we help peopledo something -- let's say they move into a flood plain and the riveroverflows its banks. Now they're flooded, right? Let's say they moveto a hillside and the mud slides. Now there's a mudslide and mud's intheir homes. If we help them, we're going to make it easier for themto pursue a course of conduct of which we might not approve. On theother hand --

MR. WATTENBERG: They could move back onto the flood plain.

MR. LOURY: That's right. We make it viable. We supply the oxygen.Someone has taken on a course of action where they're nowsuffocating. We give them oxygen. That means we've made it possiblefor them to pursue that course of action. On the other hand, if wedon't help them, we watch them suffer. Now, that's a dilemma.

MR. WATTENBERG: Well, if the dilemma is we're providing oxygen,isn't a -- let me play Murray for a minute -- isn't the solution tocut off the oxygen?

MR. LOURY: If you're prepared to watch what happens when peopleare suffocating in front of you and do nothing about it. The fact ofthe matter is we are not prepared to do that as a society. We simplyaren't.

MR. WATTENBERG: Roger Wilkins, have we created a Frankensteinmonster in welfare? You and I worked on the LBJ Great Societytogether where all this sort of started. Has something gone terriblywrong?

MR. WILKINS: I'm going to create a Frankenstein of myself bysaying that I agree with Bill Clinton, which I never do, about hispraise of Charles Murray. Now, the lightning will probably strike methe minute I walk out of here. (Laughter.)

MR. WATTENBERG: Stop the cameras!

MR. WILKINS: I think Murray's piece in the Wall Street Journalwhich pointed out the enormous increase of out-of-wedlock births topoor white women was a tremendous service to this society. Now, Idon't go with his prescriptions, but what he tells us really is thatthe bottom of American society is falling apart. Families have fallenapart. And consequently, out-of-wedlock births have gone up. Now,those -- there are other societal forces at work as well.

MR. MURRAY: Well, we have this promising little bit of commonground. If I hear Roger Wilkins say something nice about me, I wantto try to respond in kind. (Laughter.) I think Glenn said we have adilemma and I think the statement of that dilemma is correct. Thereis increasingly a perception that we have a serious problem that hasnothing to do with budget deficits. It has to do with a fundamentalcollapse of certain kinds of institutions by which you have a freesociety built.

MR. DANZIGER: But you have a system of one strike and you're outfor a young woman who makes a mistake, and that's -- we have threestrikes and you're out being put in for felons. And I think your viewis, one strike and you're out; no public assistance; the privatemarket will go in. But there are other ways to think about having asystem which expects responsibility from the mothers and fathers ofthose children, which is a second chance system.

MR. WATTENBERG: But if you reduce the welfare package, won't youhave fewer people --substantially reduced -- won't you have fewerpeople taking that one strike? Instead of having a child, thengetting a high school degree, then going to work, reverse it into thetraditional way. Get your high school degree, get a job, get ahusband, get a baby. Don't we want to eliminate those incentives --

MR. DANZIGER: If you say, 'These are problems we're concernedabout, welfare dependency and out-of-wedlock births,' it seems to meyou ought to think of both positive and negative incentives to try todo it. And Charles's thought experiment is very drastic.

MR. WATTENBERG: Glenn Loury -- one second -- are these guys all abunch of government policy wonks? I mean, they're talking aboutraising this and lowering this and taxing that. Is that the problem?

MR. LOURY: Well, I sense a contradiction in our deliberations inthat we observe there are large societal forces at work drivingdivorce rates, driving sexual behavior, contraception and all therest. And yet we talk about tinkering with what is, I don't know,1/50th, 1/200th of the federal budget, right, when we talk abouttinkering with welfare, as if that is going to somehow change theseunderlying societal forces. And I doubt that.

I don't think the government is that powerful either to cause orto reverse these societal trends. Moreover, even though I am aneconomist, when I read, let's say, the sociologist Elijah Anderson,who does ethnographic work in north Philadelphia, interviewing andobserving the behavior of youngsters there, when he talks about thesexual behavior of those youngsters. And incentives of course, play apart in the story, but they play the smallest part relative to, oh,let's say, how young men stand in their peer group in terms of theirmacho sexual performance, how young women, in what Anderson calls the'baby club' of young women, each of whom have had children, gettogether on the corner with their strollers, compare their babies, goto the clothing stores in order to dress the babies up and so forth.There are issues here about what gives people meaning in their livesthat are not susceptible to the calculated manipulation of computerjockeys in terms of what the marginal incentives are going to be.

MR. WATTENBERG: So what do we do?

MR. LOURY: When we laughed Dan Quayle off the stage last year asthe talking classes did when he said family values matter, and therewas all kinds of subterranean stuff going on -- there was politicalstuff -- 'We can't let him respond to LA by talking about values.After all, we all know it's poverty.' There was cultural stuff. 'Wecan't let this Indiana conservative go around talking about familyvalues when we all know that the Thomasons and company behind theClintons, the people who make the television shows and who aredriving the elite cultural dynamics in the society, know better thana know-nothing Indiana country boy.'

When we did that, we gave evidence of the fact that as a societywe're not really serious about doing anything about illegitimacy.We're not even prepared to talk about the moral and value questionsin sanctioning and judgmental tones that convey a degree of consensusin this society about what's really important.

MR. WATTENBERG: All right, let's get Roger Wilkins in real troublenow. Do you agree with Dan Quayle?

MR. WILKINS: I'll really invite that lightning and say that Iagreed with almost everything that Glenn said. (Laughter.) I thinkthat --

MR. WATTENBERG: One more neoconservative. (Laughter.)

MR. WILKINS: I just think the idea of tinkering with looking atthis problem only in its manifestation as out-of-wedlock births issilly and that tinkering with the welfare system is not going to fixit. I do agree with Glenn that the people on my side of the politicalspectrum are fools to give up the values argument and the familyargument to the conservatives. That is ridiculous. You and I were, ifnot architects of the Great Society, at least technicians at thecreation, right, Ben?

MR. WATTENBERG: Brick masons.

MR. WILKINS: Right. And I will tell you, I have never seen asocial program that can do for a kid what a relatively healthyfunctioning family can do. And I'm father of a 10-year-old. I mean, Ispeak from very serious daily experience. But I also believe that youcannot have families without people who are connected to the economy.Black America has experienced unemployment rates of over 10 percentfor 19 out of the last 20 years. That is, black America has been in adepression for the last two decades.

MR. WATTENBERG: But why would that cause greater illegitimacy?

MR. DANZIGER: Well, because in olden days, way back when Roger wasat Michigan, people got pregnant.

MR. WILKINS: You got me.

MR. DANZIGER: People got pregnant before they got married, butthen they tended to get married and the births were born after they--

MR. WATTENBERG: Because the young woman's older brother camearound with a shotgun to the perpetrator, as we used to say, and say,'Hey, congratulations. You're marrying my sister.'

MR. DANZIGER: There was some of that. And there's also becausethere were jobs. And another anthropologist, Mercer Sullivan, showsthis in some New York neighborhoods. In a white ethnic neighborhood,he shows there are young men fathering children out of wedlock muchto the same kind of behavior as in the minority community. But whenit happens in the white community, the parents are able to get themjobs and then they get married afterwards.

MR. MURRAY: I don't want to see us having a false debate. I wouldsay that if you take us all and put us in a locked room with thetelevision cameras off and we go over the relationship betweeneconomic, unemployment rates, this, that and the other thing, andout-of-wedlock births, you will find there is some connection. Itdoesn't explain a whole lot. And this is in the social science worldan issue in which there isn't that much disagreement. Economy doesnot explain what's happened to out-of-wedlock birth rates.

Could I just ask Roger -- and I guess --

MR. WILKINS: I agree to that.

MR. MURRAY: Okay, we will agree to this.

MR. WATTENBERG: We've agreed on so much, and I'm so delighted. Butgo ahead.

MR. MURRAY: But I think Sheldon and I sort of do represent, Ithink, a fundamental disagreement on this. Sheldon thinks that youcan have carrots to restore the black family or the white family. AndI guess I'd put it more starkly. I'd say that with adolescents andsex and babies, there has been one overriding thing which haspreserved family life in created families, and that is negativeeffects -- penalties for engaging --

MR. WATTENBERG: Sticks, not carrots.

MR. MURRAY: Sticks, not carrots -- for engaging in certain kindsof behavior. And I don't see how we're going to get from here tothere without restoring primarily sticks.

MR. WILKINS: And I think that you are harking back to sticks thatwere effective in a world that no longer exists.

MR. LOURY: This cultural stuff, we talk about it as if it's outthere. It's like cosmic rays coming in from Mars. What can we do nowthat the orbit of Mars has realigned itself so that it bombards uswith television signals that pollute our values? It is not. As Irecall the political decade of the 1980s, it was not entirely, butsubstantially fought in terms of domestic politics around these kindof issues. And Roger was on the other side of that debate.

And when people stood up and said, 'We have got to -- in terms ofour schools, what's taught in our schools -- when people in thecommunities out there said, 'What about the books that are coming in'When we do Afro-centrism and we vet textbooks for the images thatthey project of Native Americans in the 19th century, we're notbashful about bending the cultural milieu in order to reflectjudgments that we think are important to us politically.


MR. LOURY: Let me make my point.

MR. WILKINS: (Inaudible.)

MR. LOURY: Wait a minute, Roger. I haven't --

MR. WILKINS: I'd like to hear what your evidence is --

MR. LOURY: I'm saying not only was Dan Quayle right, not only wasPat Robertson right, not only was Jerry Falwell right, but a lot ofthe black ministers who were on the front line and who were tryingto, against the political tide, the tide that was represented in theDemocratic national convention in New York City in 1992, the tidethat motivates who gets appointed to important positions in thegovernment of the United States today, against the tide whodetermines what the surgeon general says about condom use, aboutsexuality, what gets communicated through the various powerfulinstitutions of the society about homosexuality, about religion,about how we can't have anything to say about values or judgment ofpeople when we come to doing the business of state.

My point is simply these things that we're talking about are notout there. They are a part of our politics. They are in play. If youwant to be consistent, you've got to follow that chain to the end ofthe line.

MR. WATTENBERG: Hang on a second. I want to -- you will get plentyof chance to come back to that. I want to move on right now to thesecond part of our program. You know, the welfare problem is reallytwo problems. One is how to keep people from getting on welfare inthe first place. And second is, what about those Americans who arealready on welfare? During the presidential campaign, one of BillClinton's most popular promises was to, quote, 'end welfare as weknow it.' He renewed this pledge in his 1994 State of the Unionaddress.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: (From videotape.) People who bring childreninto this world cannot and must not walk away from them. But to allthose who depend on welfare, we should offer ultimately a simplecompact. We'll provide the support, the job training, the child careyou need for up to two years. But after that, anyone who can work,must; in the private sector wherever possible; in community serviceif necessary. That's the only way we'll ever make welfare what itought to be, a second chance, not a way of life.

MR. WATTENBERG: That was the rallying cry: Two years and out. Butout to what? Most experts think there aren't enough private-sectorjobs for all the people on welfare. President Clinton says thegovernment will provide the needed jobs. But critics say that everygovernment jobs program ever tried has failed miserably. Is thattrue, Sheldon Danziger?

MR. DANZIGER: No, I don't think it's failed miserably.

MR. WATTENBERG: What's a jobs program that's worked?

MR. DANZIGER: Well, I think there was a lot of public works andpublic buildings built during the great depression that are stillaround, post offices and highways and bridges.

MR. WILKINS: And parks.

MR. DANZIGER: And parks. I think we had trouble with publicemployment in --

MR. WATTENBERG: Let me rephrase my question. What, in the last --since World War II?

MR. DANZIGER: Well, I don't -- MR. WATTENBERG: We're talking abouta different era and a different age. The great depression, you had 25percent unemployment. You had middle-class unemployment. It was apretty different era. What since World War II as a federal or statejobs program has worked?

MR. WILKINS: I'll tell you, a lot of city budgeteers in the '60s,a lot of people who ran cities in the '60s, would tell you that CETAworked for them. It worked to give them workers.


MR. WILKINS: Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. It workedfor them in the cities and it also worked for them in putting peopleinto the agencies and getting them into jobs. So I don't think youcan say that jobs programs don't work.

MR. MURRAY: Again, there have been a lot of evaluations of CETA,and I think the consensus among everybody who's looked at it is,yeah, there were some effects on women -- not big ones, but some. Andwhen you look at the men and try to figure out some way in which CETAaffected unemployment among those guys, there's just no evidence itdid any good.

MR. WATTENBERG: We were talking about carrots and sticks before.We have a welfare program now that gives out carrots in the form ofmoney, housing, food and medicine. Isn't there a risk that when yousay, 'Hey, if you go on welfare, after two years we are also going togive you a job?' Can this be -- can this Clinton jobs-related,workfare-related program be one more incentive?

MR. DANZIGER: No, I think that's right. You have to avoid thisbeing, quote, 'a good job.' It can't be a good job. It has to be --

MR. WATTENBERG: So we want to create bad jobs.

MR. DANZIGER: No, it has to be a job of last resort.

MR. WATTENBERG: Suppose, after the two years, you don't go towork. What happens? What do you cut off?

MR. DANZIGER: Well, I think then it's different. If there is a jobopportunity of a last resort --

MR. WATTENBERG: Right, a janitor's job --


MR. WATTENBERG: -- in a YMCA and he says, 'That's work. I'm notgoing to do that.';

MR. DANZIGER: Well, in that case, I think then you have toconsider cutting off the cash. I agree with you on that.

MR. WATTENBERG: Cutting off the cash.

MR. DANZIGER: Cutting off the cash.

MR. WATTENBERG: The mother and the children?

MR. DANZIGER: Well, you have to have a strong disincentive. Youcan't have people doing it. And then the issue, as I think Charles is'sink or swim,' Glenn is 'cut off the oxygen.' I feel uncomfortablebecause I worry about those kids.

MR. MURRAY: Sheldon has just told us exactly what's going tohappen with the Clinton welfare plan or the Republican one, which isit is going to -- as time goes on and you get closer to this cliffand anybody's in danger of falling off the cliff, Glenn Loury'sdilemma comes into play. And I don't think we're going to get --

MR. WATTENBERG: Restate the Loury dilemma.

MR. MURRAY: The Loury dilemma is you don't want to encourage thebehavior. You don't want to see those kids starving in the streets.And so what are you going to do? Anything that works in the sense ofrestoring the family is going to cause some suffering. And if youdon't -- if you aren't willing to say that and accept that, you'renot going to get anywhere.

MR. WILKINS: And that really divides the line between this sideand his --

MR. WATTENBERG: Wait a minute --

MR. WILKINS: -- because he says there is a massive problem thatthreatens the very fabric of our society. He might even say that it'sthe national security problem of the '90s and the beginning of thenext. I say I agree with that. And if we have a problem of thatmassive proportion, then what are we going to do? Are we going to saywe will punish people until they just knock it off, or will we say wedo understand that work is good for people and good for families, sowe're going to have a job program that sops up welfare people andother people who need jobs, and we're going to put them to workbecause we believe that is good for family formation.

MR. WATTENBERG: You get the last crack at it.

MR. LOURY: Yeah, we're talking about something important. I, youknow, put in my word for culture. I think we have all agreed, to agreater extent than I would have anticipated, that questions ofvalues are important. I think we disagree about what, if anything,can be done about them. I want to reiterate my point that when wetalk about values, that's part of our general political culture inthis country. It's politics. It's not just something that comes downfrom outer space. And we can do more than we have done to promote thetraditional family.

MR. WATTENBERG: Okay, thank you, Dr. Murray and Professors Loury,Wilkins and Danziger.

Until next time for Think Tank, I'm Ben Wattenberg. END

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