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Bush's proposal for welfare moms and the real White House agenda
Buried in the details of the regressive, militarist, and fiscally irresponsible budget plan released by the White House in early February is a weak but revealing proposal of marriage. At this writing, the Bush administration is asking Congress for $100 million of federal welfare money to pay for experimental state programs to promote marriage among the nation's single welfare mothers. The proposal is based on the right-wing notion, trumpeted by reactionary think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, that the root causes of poverty and related alleged “welfare dependency” among the nation's most disadvantaged citizens are out-of-wedlock child births and the collapse of the traditional two-parent family. It's a convenient notion for policymakers who wish to avoid honest discussion of how the so-called welfare reform bill of 1996, which kicked millions of single mothers off public assistance and into the supposedly high-opportunity U.S. job market, has predictably worsened the plight of the nation's most disadvantaged children. That bill, titled the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” (PRA) was prefaced by the official Congressional “finding” that “marriage is the foundation of a successful society.”
Proponents of “marriage as the solution to poverty” wield a superficially impressive array of statistics showing that children born to unmarried parents are more likely to be born at a low birth weight, develop poor cognitive and verbal abilities, experience abuse, and “fail” in marriages than their counterparts in two parent homes. They cite solid and standard evidence that children in two-parent families do better financially and emotionally than children in single-parent homes. They note that the majority of adult welfare recipients are single mothers struggling with the task of paying for children they lack the earnings to support. They conduct counterfactual “microsimulation analyses” to “show” that the child poverty rate would be 3 to 4 points lower if the “the proportion of children living in female-headed families [had] remained constant” rather than increasing from nearly 11 to more than 23 percent between 1970 and 1998.
Armed with such findings and with the often quite literally religious belief that the two-parent heterosexual family is the indispensable “foundation” of the good society, some state policymakers have already introduced a number of programs to promote marriage among the nation's disproportionately black and urban population of welfare moms. The measures include cash payments ($100 a month) to welfare mothers who tie the knot (West Virginia), marriage education for couples receiving welfare (Oklahoma), and marriage skills courses and a “healthy marriage handbook” for single welfare mothers (Arizona). Bush hopes to make the expansion of such experiments across the country into a central component of the federal welfare bill, which Congress is scheduled to re-authorize this year.
The influence of the idea that marriage is the solution to poverty in the Bush administration was evident last spring. That's when the White House appointed Wade Horn, founder of the “pro-marriage” Fatherhood Initiative, to become Assistant Secretary for Family Support at the Department of Health and Human Services. Insisting that poor mothers are poor because they are not married, Horn has called for the federal government to give preference to children from two-parent families over children of single parents in admissions to the Head Start program.
Bush, Horn, and Heritage childishly confuse cause and effect when it comes to grasping fundamental relationships between poverty and family structure. It is one thing to find that children and families tend to do better, materially and otherwise, when they are organized along stable two-parent lines. Since correlation is not causation, however, it is quite another thing to extrapolate from that basic and uncontroversial finding to conclude that declining marriage and rising single motherhood are the causes of poverty and related alleged “welfare dependency.”
The best poverty and family research suggests precisely the reverse, showing—and this finding was absent from the preface to the PRA—that the traditional family has been declining for the last 30 years under the pressure of growing socioeconomic inequality. This polarization has made stable family life next to impossible for millions, especially those who lack the job skills and/or education and/or union protections required to make a livable wage. It has generated an all-too realistic sense of hopelessness on the part of disadvantaged rural and inner city youth, who see no future higher earnings or education to be endangered by engaging in pre-marital sex. It has been accompanied by rising rates of domestic violence and a relative decline of male earnings that has made men more dispensable in the minds of poor women seeking to escape abusive relationships—something with unintentionally positive consequences from a feminist perspective. It has also come alongside a related massive wave of arrest and incarceration directed especially at black males. The Bush marriage proposal says, in essence “let [the poor] eat wedding rings,” to use the appropriately sarcastic phrase of Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller of the Alternatives to Marriage Project in Boston.
Nothing reveals the sorry nature of Bush's marriage proposal more than the way these patterns have generated a critical shortage of both jobs and marriageable black males in those communities. To focus on the job issue, consider the situation of a hypothetical African-American welfare mother named Sharron Williams, 31 years old with 2 children and living in North Lawndale, a 99 percent African-American neighborhood on Chicago's West Side. Williams and her children could certainly use another adult breadwinner. Consistent with conservative claims, more than 27 percent of people in families headed by a single mother live beneath the federal government's poverty level, compared to 6.8 percent of people living in two-parent families. Even when single mothers work, the poverty rate for families headed by single mothers falls only to 19.4 percent.
Thanks to her location, education, gender, and race, it is likely that Sharron and her children are considerably poorer than the national population of single-mother households. Like more than 72 percent of the state's adult welfare recipients she lacks a high school degree. Like 73 percent of the same group she is African-American and like 98 percent she is female. It doesn't make for a terribly good labor market combination. According to the latest numbers from the U.S. Current Population Survey, black female high school dropouts have an average annual income, including public assistance, of $13,288. That is roughly consistent with the commonly reported median hourly earnings of former welfare recipients ($7.00 an hour). In Sharron's neighborhood, more than two-thirds of families are female-headed and just 13 percent of the residents have more than a high school education. Only 4 percent have more than 4 or more years of college and more than 4 in 10 people live below the poverty level.
We only begin to scratch the surface of Williams and her children's material difficulties by noting that her income is below the federal poverty level for a family of three ($14,600). Official U.S. poverty thresholds are absurdly low, based on a ridiculously antiquated formula that fails to make adequate space for the medical, childcare, transportation and other costs faced by people in the real world. That formula does not properly account for regional variations in the cost of living or for differential costs associated with variant family structures. A far better measure of Sharron's real cost of living is provided by the Economic Policy Institute's recent basic family budget estimate, calculated with the best available measures of minimally mainstream housing, food, clothing, childcare, transportation, tax and other costs and adjusted for geographical difference across every metropolitan area in the country. By EPI's calculation, it costs $35,307 dollars a year for a family of one parent and two children to meet basic family needs. Even if she lived in a less desperate neighborhood, Sharron's likely income would equal just more than a third of her family's real world requirements.
Sharron's chance of escaping poverty through employment is low. The job loss resulting from the current economic recession is both concentrated in the industries where many welfare recipients find employment and highly racialized. In December 2001 the official unemployment rate for black workers was 10.2 percent, up from 7.5 percent one year ago, nearly double that of whites, and it is considerably higher in the inner city. In Sharron's neighborhood at last full count, 27 percent of the civilian labor force was unemployed. Of the 22 Chicago neighborhoods that were more than 90 percent black in 1990, all had double-digit unemployment rates and 12 had rates of 20 percent and higher. Like the poverty rate, moreover, the official U.S. unemployment rate is deceptively optimistic. It deletes the considerable contingent of jobless people who have given up seeking work or never did so and leaves out part-time workers who would prefer to be full-time. It also omits the two million incarcerated Americans, half of whom are black.
Sharron's job possibilities did not improve much during the recently concluded “economic boom.” Between 1991 and 2000, 98 percent of job growth in the Chicago metropolitan area took place in the predominantly white suburbs and not in the city, which houses two-thirds of the area's African-Americans. Slight employment expansion did occur in the city as a whole, but Chicago's 19 disproportionately black zip codes lost jobs during the “Clinton boom” and the three zip codes covering North Lawndale lost nearly 3,000 jobs between 1991 and 2000.
At the end of the vaunted Clinton expansion, the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University reports, 30 percent of African-Americans ages 20 to 24 in the nation's 50 largest central cities were both out of school and out of work and 6 of every 10 African-Americans ages 16 to 24 in Chicago were jobless. Chicago, the Center found, was home to nearly 60,000 “disconnected” (out of school and work) 20-24 year olds, equivalent to nearly one in four of the city's young adults. The ratio was certainly much higher in the city's predominantly black and high poverty neighborhoods.
These findings are consistent with labor market research conducted by the Midwest Job Gap Project during the middle and late 1990s. In the Chicago metropolitan area, including even the relatively job-rich suburbs, the Project found, there was only one unskilled job opening in 1998 for every four unskilled workers who needed jobs, including former public assistance expected to find positions under the rules of welfare-to-work. In the city, there were more than 30 such workers for every unskilled job opening that paid at least poverty level wages for a family of three. This was in a period that saw the lowest official U.S. unemployment rate in more than 25 years.
Find a Man?
Likely to be frustrated in her struggle to achieve what policymakers like to call “self-sufficiency” through wage labor, Williams is free to follow the advice of the Heritage Foundation. Moving into what conservatives are now calling the “second phase” of welfare reform, from “get a job” to “get a husband,” she can commence the search for a man.
One problem that quickly emerges and should concern even the most lukewarm feminist is that she probably has some very good experience-based reasons to be uninterested in that search. On the basis of a major research project that interviewed hundreds of inner city Chicago residents, Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson reported, in When Work Disappears (1996), that “the relationships between inner city men and women, whether in a marital or non-marital situation, are often fractious and antagonistic. Inner city black women routinely say that they distrust men and feel strongly that black men lack dedication to their families.”
Putting aside this by-no-means minor problem, the next roadblock on Williams's path to poverty-slashing marital bliss is the shortage of “marriageable” males in her immediate social milieu. Thanks to remarkably high and interrelated rates of unemployment, mortality, and incarceration in inner city neighborhoods, the size of the pool of marriageable men in Sharron's community is woefully inadequate. According to Wilson and other researchers, the increase in single mother black households since 1970 is directly related to a drastic decline in the “male marriageable pool index,” defined as the ratio of employed men per 100 women of the same age and race, during the last third of the 20th century. Wilson discovered that that index fell from 67 to 44 for 24 year olds nationally between the early 1960s and 1980. At the heart of this decline, Wilson found, was the exodus of manufacturing employment from the central city, something that had a gravely disproportionate impact on the employment and earnings potential of black males.
At latest count from the Department of Labor, there are 63 employed black men 20 years and older for every 100 black females in the same age group. The comparable ratio of employed males to females in whites of the same age cohort is 84 to 100. For 20-24 year olds, the racial difference in employed males to same-race females is quite stark: 54 to 100 for blacks and 92 to 100 for whites. These are national level numbers however and the ratio is certainly far worse in neighborhoods like Sharron's.
More Likely To Survive in Bangladesh
In a chilling article published in the academic journal Demography in 1998, sociologists Avery M. Guest, Gunnar Almgren, and John M. Hussey found that an unemployed black male from the South or West Side of Chicago or Harlem is more likely to survive the next few years in Bangladesh than he is in his own neighborhood. Infant mortality rates, they discovered, were higher in the highly impoverished Third World nation, but working age mortality (ages 25 to 64) in Chicago's “extremely economically distressed” neighborhoods—defined as having unemployment rates 25 percent or higher—was considerably worse. They found a shocking death rate of 22.4 for black male residents of those neighborhoods ages 35 to 44. The mortality rates for American white males (2.4) and even Bangladeshi males (4.2) paled by comparison. “If you survive infancy and early childhood,” Almgren subsequently noted, “you are better off almost anywhere in the world than in your own American neighborhood if it is extremely economically distressed.” At last full socioeconomic census count, 9 of Chicago's 77 officially designated and highly segregated Community Areas fit Almgren et al.'s definition of “extremely distressed.” One in 5 of the city's African-Americans lived in those neighborhoods, all of which were more than 93 percent African-American.
Where Welfare Moms Meet Ex-Cons
Many of Sharron's potential marriage partners are currently locked up in a sprawling prison-industrial complex that provides family-supporting jobs for predominantly white “downstate” communities far removed from the Chicago area. Between 1972 and 2000, the number of people behind bars in the United States rose from 330,000 to more than 2 million or 461 prisoners per 100,000 U.S. citizens. That rising and very disproportionately (nearly 50 percent) black, male (more than 90 percent), and urban-based population is now curiously roughly equivalent to the number of disproportionately black, female, and urban adult heads of welfare households. An estimated 11 percent of African-American males in their 20s and early 30s are incarcerated and on any given day 30 percent of African-American males ages 20 to 29 are “under correctional supervision”: in prison or jail or on parole or probation. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has estimated that a young black man age 16 in 1996 faces a 29 percent chance of serving time in prison during his life. In predominantly black inner-city communities across the nation, incarceration has become so commonplace that it has become something of a “normative experience” (“no big deal”) for black males. Seven percent of the nation's black children have at least one parent behind bars.
A recent Time magazine article reports that more than 630,000 people, half of them black, will be released from prison in 2002—the largest prison exodus in history. A hugely disproportionate number of these ex-offenders will be returning to a relatively small number of high-poverty inner-city neighborhoods, which also provide leading concentrations of single mother welfare households. Numerous studies have pegged these ex-offenders' “unemployable” rate at higher than 60 percent. The minority of those who find “legitimate” work, Time reports, have done so in low paying “off-the-books” jobs.
Sharron's city, neighborhood, and state are no exceptions to the national pattern. In Illinois, home to the third largest population of prisoners in the nation, the prison population has grown by more than 60 percent since 1990. More than 60 percent of the state's nearly 46,000 prisoners are black males. Seventy percent of these black male prisoners come from the Chicago metropolitan area, where Chicago's Cook County is home to 81 percent of the state's adult female welfare recipients, up from 64 percent in 1995, when welfare “reform” was moving into high gear at the state level. According to a recent analysis by the Chicago Reporter, 1 in 5 black men ages 20 to 29 in Cook County are either in prison or jail or on parole. For Cook County whites of the same gender and age, the corresponding ratio is 1 in 104. As of last June, there were nearly 20,000 more black males in the Illinois state prison system than the number of black males enrolled in the state's public universities. There are more black males in the state prisons than in all of the state's post-secondary educational institutions including community colleges. Seventy percent of the men between ages 18 and 45 in Sharron's neighborhood are ex-offenders.
Nearly 50 percent of the state's African-Americans released from prison return within at least 3 years. They carry what many of them call an “X” on their backs—a felony conviction that is readily evident to the 49 percent of American employers that conduct criminal background checks on potential employees and of whom more than half report that they never hire ex-offenders. They emerge equally unprepared to engage as loving husbands or fathers.
It's all part of a self-defeating “feedback” loop that has been deepening over time. Directly related to the economic marginalization of black males in post-industrial America, the decline of the two-parent inner-city family is strongly associated with urban violence (itself a major contributor to black male mortality) and crime. As “family disruption” increases, sociologist Robert Sampson notes, the “community social ties” and “informal networks of social control” that tend to keep younger black males out of illegal activities collapse. This feeds high urban crime rates that are exaggerated to provide the pretext for the rise of a racially disparate mass-incarceration state that decreases yet more the ratio of urban black males to females and deepens the economic and social-psychological incapacitation of black males.
What If Poor Parents Got Married?
Last year, Princeton University researchers using data from the Fragile Families Wellbeing Study examined nearly 5,000 births to unmarried mothers in 20 large U.S. cities, analyzing age, educational, wage and other factors to estimate likely outcomes if the mothers got married to the fathers of their children. In counterfactual scenarios where the female of the newly married pair stayed home, they found that 22 percent of the families would be below the poverty line and 59 percent would be below 150 percent of the poverty level. Even if both of the newly married parents were to work outside home, they determined, 28 percent of the families would still be below poverty. Part of the explanation for these poor outcomes, the Princeton team found, was that unmarried parents are considerably younger and have less education and earnings potential than married parents.
“Yes,” concludes Solot and Miller, “on average married couples are less likely to be poor than unmarried couples. But it does not follow that marriage would end poverty among unmarried couples.” The latter's often considerable economic difficulties “cannot,” according to the Princeton researchers, “be magically altered by a marriage license.” Consistent with this conclusion, there is little correlation between marriage and child poverty rates on an international scale. Solot and Miller note that “the four countries with some of the lowest child poverty rates in Europe (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and France) all have unmarried birth rates far higher than the United States. Sweden's child poverty rate is seven times lower than the rate in the U.S., despite the fact that the majority of babies there are born to unmarried parents.” The main difference is the presence of social-democratic welfare states in the European nations and the related prevalence in those nations of the judgment that children born into a family and world they never made should not grow up in poverty. Blaming single-parenthood for poverty is an elite American mechanism for avoiding the inhumane consequences of the disturbing fact that U.S. policy makers do not share that judgment.
If Bush Was Serious
Faced with such stark contradiction between proposed policy and social reality, the temptation is strong to write off the White House's marriage-for-welfare-moms enthusiasm as, well, stupid. It is stupid, however, only on the assumption that Bush is serious about wanting to improve the life circumstances and even the marriage chances of the welfare poor. That is a very bad assumption, as is suggested by the fact that the Bush budget plan slashes federal job training expenditures, eliminating 20 of the government's 48 job-training programs while requesting $590 billion in further Reaganite tax cuts and $550 billion in new military spending over the next decade. If Bush was even moderately serious about improving the marriage chances and reducing the fragility of the nation's poor families he would be advocating the expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (one of the few federal policies that actually works to alleviate poverty for working families) and the reduction of marriage penalties in that program. He would also call off the racially disparate war on drugs and call for the revision of harsh mandatory sentencing laws, a moratorium on new prison construction, and a real attack on racial profiling. He would advance a major expansion of state and federal programs to replace mass incapacitation (the literal official objective of modern American penology) with rehabilitation and other policies (e.g., job placement, drug treatment, mental health services, transitional housing, and educational services) that meaningfully support the reintegration of ex-offenders into the community.
When it comes to smaller state programs that hold promise for poor families, a sincerely anti-poverty president would forget about the ineffective marriage promotion schemes carried out by a few state welfare programs. He or she would seek, rather, to publicize and build on the model of Minnesota's Family Investment Program (MFIP). Unusually generous amongst the state welfare programs ushered in by the 1996 welfare bill, MFIP allows parents on public assistance to continue receiving benefits as long as their earnings do not exceed 40 percent of the official poverty threshold. By reducing at least some of the economic stresses that cripple impoverished households, MFIP has unintentionally increased its recipients' likelihood of getting and remaining married. It receives no recognition whatsoever from the Bush White House.
Also certain to be ignored by the Bush team is the fact the combined percentage of poor and near-poor (twice the poverty level) children living in single-mother households actually fell between 1995 and 2000. The reduction likely reflected the moderate increase in family-enabling wages for lesser skilled workers that occurred during the second half of the Clinton boom. It suggests that the single-motherhood “problem” was declining when Bush and his conservative anti-social policy advisers seized the White House with a little family assistance from five partisan Supreme Court justices.
It is curious also to note that welfare reform has long been justified by the widely propagated and dear-to-Republicans' belief that the expansion of liberal welfare policies and rising benefit levels during and after the 1960s provided the chief cause of the rise of female-headed families and the out-of-wedlock births. Interesting, then, that five years after the abolition of the welfare entitlement, with public family assistance caseloads at less than half their mid-1990s level, the “problem” of the poor female-headed family remains very much alive and well in the minds of policymakers. Perhaps this is part of why the Bush administration is not putting all that much money into its marriage proposal to welfare mothers. The White House is not exactly going all out for the engagement ring. It wants to pay for the marriage experiments by eliminating the ineffective financial bonuses (paid out of welfare dollars) the federal government has been giving to states that reduce out-of-wedlock births across the board.
Smart and Mean
Still, Bush's proposal is reflective of the real White House agenda. More mean than stupid, that agenda has nothing to do with solving poverty or easing the crisis of poor families. It is shaped by some very different and interrelated priorities greatly assisted by the events of last September and the fear and repression they engendered. More than slightly reminiscent of the Reagan years, those priorities are to distribute wealth yet further upward, to reward big money corporate campaign contributors, to expand the military budget like never before, to eviscerate social expenditures, and to keep the religious right on board.
>From the perspective of these goals, the marriage proposal is smart and incredibly cheap. It shifts responsibility for taking care of poor children from government and the capitalist labor market to society's truest victims and does so in a time when poverty is dramatically on the rise. It is advertised in a way that addresses the qualms of politically significant social moderates by creating an illusion of compassionate concern for the plight of the poor. It throws a bone to the ever-valuable political dogs of the sexist “family values” right, for whom the single-mother-headed household is an abomination in and of itself, whatever its real relationship to poverty. It diverts attention from the real causes of poverty, focusing voters and obedient media lapdogs on the “irresponsible” behavior of the poor. Better to focus on the victims than the forces of economic inequity and race and gender discrimination and the irresponsible behaviors and values of “elite” citizens that combine to generate misery at the bottom of a savagely unequal social structure. Countering those forces would require a level of public and social investment that is anathema to conventional neo-liberal policy wisdom and particularly ruled out by Bush's commitment to slashing taxes for and funneling billions of dollars to his super-opulent friends and corporate paymasters. Seen in the context of the overall agenda of which it is part, Bush's sorry little marriage proposal is very smart indeed. Z
Paul Street is a social policy researcher, freelance writer, and civil rights activist in Chicago.