The Real Welfare Problem

The Family Support Act, America's most recent effort at welfare reform, begins to take effect this year. The new law seeks to get single mothers off welfare through a combination of job training, work requirements, child care subsidies, and child support enforcement. Cutting the welfare rolls is, in turn, supposed to save the taxpayer money while enhancing the self-respect of single mothers and their children.

Like countless earlier attempts at welfare reform, the new law is unlikely to change much. Judging by the experience of states that have already established compulsory training programs and work requirements, it will not save the taxpayer much money. Nor will it move many single mothers off the welfare rolls. The reason is simple: single mothers do not turn to welfare because they are pathologically dependent on handouts or unusually reluctant to work. They turn to welfare because they cannot get jobs that pay any better than welfare. Since the new law will not do much to change this fact, it will not get many single mothers off welfare.

Meanwhile, the nation's 3.7 million welfare families confront an urgent problem: they do not get enough money from welfare to pay their bills. Nor can most single mothers earn enough to cover their expenses. The only way most welfare recipients can keep their families together is to combine work and welfare. Yet if they report that they are working, the welfare department will soon reduce their checks by almost the full amount of their earnings, leaving them as desperate as before. The only way most recipients can make ends meet, therefore, is to supplement their welfare checks without telling the welfare department.

Welfare benefits have always been low, and their purchasing power has fallen steadily since the mid-1970s. Most people assume that low benefits just force recipients to live frugally. But low benefits have another, more sinister effect that neither conservatives nor liberals like to acknowledge: they force most welfare recipients to lie and cheat in order to survive. Conservatives ignore this problem because admitting that welfare recipients cannot survive without cheating would weaken the case for cutting benefits. Liberals ignore the problem because admitting that welfare recipients cheat for any reason whatever reduces public sympathy for their plight.

In reality, however, welfare mothers operate on the same moral principles as most other Americans. They think their first obligation is to care for their children, and they assume this means providing food, shelter, heat, electricity, furniture, clothes, and an occasional treat. Since welfare seldom gives recipients who follow the rules enough money to pay for these necessities, they feel entitled to break the rules. Welfare recipients also think that working ought to make them better off. Since the welfare system does not allow them to keep what they earn if they report their earnings, they feel entitled to ignore the reporting requirement.

We have, in short, created a welfare system whose rules have no moral legitimacy in recipients' eyes. This feeling is not confined to second-generation welfare recipients in poor neighborhoods -- the so-called underclass. It is shared by mainstream recipients who have finished high school, held jobs, gotten married, had children, and ended up on welfare only when their husbands left them. It is a feeling bred by a system whose rules are incompatible with everyday American morality, not by the peculiar characteristics of welfare recipients.


How Welfare Mothers Survive

In the major Midwestern city that we studied in some detail in 1988, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) paid a single mother with one child and no outside income $250 per month. She also got $149 per month in Food Stamps, plus a Medicaid card that entitled her to free medical care and prescription drugs. Since Food Stamps are virtually the same as cash, a mother with one child ended up with $399 a month, or roughly $4,800 per year. Her annual income (including Food Stamps) rose to $6,700 if she had two children, $7,900 if she had three, and $9,300 if she had four. We picked this particular city because its benefit levels, which were 60 to 75 percent of the federal poverty line, were within a few dollars of the national average.

To see how families could get by on so little money, Edin conducted intensive interviews with 25 welfare families. Previous experience suggested that if she simply drew a random sample of welfare recipients, went to their homes, and asked them to describe their income and expenditures, she would get a lot of refusals, a lot of evasion, and a lot of budgets in which income was insufficient to cover expenditures. She therefore took a different tack, asking acquaintances who knew welfare recipients in different capacities to introduce her to one or two recipients and convince them she was trustworthy. All but 4 of the 29 mothers she contacted in this way agreed to be interviewed.

The resulting sample was not perfectly representative of the nation's AFDC population, but it included about the same percentage of high school graduates and about the same percentage of blacks and whites. The most obvious differences were that Edin did not interview any teenage mothers and undersampled unwed mothers. Unlike larger and more representative samples of welfare recipients, however, her 25 mothers provided income and expenditure data that made sense. In particular, they reported enough income, both legal and illegal, to cover their expenses.


NOT ONE OF THESE 25 mothers was able to live on her welfare check, and only one even came close. All 25 supplemented their checks with income from other sources. None reported all her extra income to the welfare department, and only two reported any of it. Not reporting outside income is illegal, but the chances of being caught are low. Furthermore, even if a recipient is caught, she cannot be cut off the rolls or prosecuted for fraud unless the state can show that she intended to break the law, which it seldom can. A recipient who gets caught cheating is supposed to repay her excess benefits, but so long as she remains on welfare the state can only reduce her monthly check by 10 percent.

Once we look at the 25 mothers' monthly budgets, it is easy to see why they all supplemented their AFDC checks. Their checks were seldom enough to pay even their rent and utility bills, much less their other expenses. These 25 mothers got an average of $344 per month in cash from AFDC. They paid an average of $261 a month for rent, $48 a month for gas (the principal source of heat in the Midwest), and $48 a month for electricity. On the average, therefore, shelter, heat, and electricity cost them $13 more than AFDC provided.

Welfare mothers are not miracle workers. Like everyone else, they must pay not only for shelter, heat, and electricity but for clothing, laundry, school supplies, transportation, furniture, appliances, and family emergencies. Most welfare families also need some cash for groceries. Edin's families, for example, spent an average of $19 per person per week on food, of which Food Stamps covered only $15. By the end of the month the typical mother had spent $724 in cash plus $230 in Food Stamps. Since she got only $344 from AFDC, she had a $380 deficit.

Figure 1 shows how these particular mothers made ends meet. They got 57 percent of their income from food stamps and AFDC. Roughly half the rest came from work of various kinds. The remainder came from absent fathers, boyfriends, relatives, and student loans. The work these mothers did was extraordinarily diverse. Three held regular jobs under another name, earning an average of $5 an hour. Twelve worked part time at off-the-books jobs such as bartending, catering, babysitting, and sewing that paid an average of $3 an hour.

The only well-paid work open to these women was prostitution, which paid something like $40 an hour. Four of Edin's mothers supplemented their welfare checks this way. Four others sold drugs, but three of the four sold only marijuana and earned only $3 to $5 an hour. They could presumably have earned more if they had sold crack on the street, but they sold only to acquaintances, which was much less risky. The fourth drug seller sold crack as well as marijuana and earned something like $10 an hour, but she was murdered soon after Edin interviewed her, apparently because she had not repaid her supplier.

Welfare mothers' expenses obviously increase when they have more children. In Edin's sample, mothers with one child spent $8,100 to $9,400 per year (including Food Stamps). Larger families spent $10,000 to $15,000. But welfare benefits also increase with family size. There was no evidence that small families found it easier to live on their checks than large ones. If anything, the opposite was true, because large families with older mothers were more likely to live in public housing.

Welfare recipients who lived in public housing came much closer to balancing their budgets than mothers living elsewhere. Rent in public housing is limited by law to 30 percent of the recipient's AFDC check, and this figure includes heat. After paying her rent and electric bills, the average welfare mother in public housing had $208 in cash plus her Food Stamps left to get her through the month. None actually got by on this amount, but they came a lot closer than those in private housing. Of the 17 mothers in private housing, only two had anything left from their AFDC check after paying their rent and utility bills.


How Well Do Welfare Mothers Live?

These welfare mothers did not live extravagantly. The typical mother spent only $954 a month to support a family of four, which is slightly less than the federal poverty line. The poverty line is an arbitrary threshold, set 25 years ago as a matter of political convenience, but surveys suggest that most Americans think the threshold is too low, not too high. The Gallup survey regularly asks Americans: What is the smallest amount of money a family of four (husband, wife, and two children) needs each week to get along in this community?

In 1986 the typical Gallup respondent said that a family of four needed $349 a week (roughly $1,500 a month) to get along. Poorer families set the threshold lower, but even the heads of families with incomes below $10,000 said that a family of four needed $1,200 a month to get along. Allowing for inflation, the 1988 figure would be about $1,300. Using this standard, Edin's welfare families were getting along on three-quarters of what low-income Americans thought a family needed.

Despite the fact that all 25 of Edin's mothers supplemented their AFDC checks, all but three were far worse off than most Americans. One of the three exceptions was a large family of foreign born refugees, whose two grown sons lived elsewhere but covertly paid the rent on the family's $600 a month apartment. The second was a woman who had recently received $7,000 from an insurance company because an automobile had hit her. The third was the sample's only successful drug dealer, who also held a regular job under an assumed name. Yet even these three families got by on about $15,000 a year, including Food Stamps.

None of the other 22 mothers reported expenditures totaling more than 133 percent of the poverty line, even when we include Food Stamps. Half lived in very bad neighborhoods. Half lived in badly run-down apartments, where the heat and hot water were frequently out of order, the roof leaked, plaster was falling off the walls, or windows fit so badly that the wind blew through the apartment in the winter. One in three did without a telephone, and one in three reported spending nothing whatever on entertainment. Many said their food budgets were too tight for fresh fruit or vegetables. Only one had a working car.

It is true that all these welfare mothers had color television sets, and that a third had video recorders -- extravagances that often offend intellectuals who rely on books for entertainment. But because both TV sets and video recorders last a long time, they cost only a few dollars a month. Since they provided both the mothers and their children with free entertainment, the mothers were willing to forego almost any other comfort (such as reliable hot water or fresh vegetables) to ensure that they had a working television. Without one, their lives would have been unimaginably bleak.

These mothers also bought a few other things that would raise conservative eyebrows. More than half occasionally rented a video tape or took the children to McDonald's for dinner. More than half used cigarettes or alcohol. Two spent $30 to $40 a month on the lottery. From an economic viewpoint, however, these little luxuries were of minor importance: taken together, cigarettes, alcohol, eating out, and entertainment accounted for less than 5 percent of these mothers' total expenditures.

More important than these small extravagances, at least from an economic viewpoint, was the fact that half these welfare mothers were unwilling to live in the city's worst neighborhoods. If we set aside those in public housing, mothers who lived in very bad neighborhoods paid $180 to $265 a month in rent, whereas those who lived in average neighborhoods usually paid $325 to $425 a month. Mothers who lived in average neighborhoods could, therefore, have cut their monthly expenditures by something like $150 if they had moved to very bad neighborhoods. It is important to remember, however, that these neighborhoods are not just run down, dirty, and short on amenities. They are also dangerous. White and Hispanic welfare mothers are particularly reluctant to live in these neighborhoods, because they are overwhelmingly black. But some black mothers also paid higher rent to live in safer neighborhoods.


How Typical Are Our Welfare Families?

Because of the way Edin drew her sample, we suspect that her 25 mothers had somewhat more outside income than the average welfare mother in their city. We doubt, however, that the difference was large. Edin also interviewed 25 welfare workers in the same city who reviewed recipients' rent and utility bills in order to calculate Food Stamp entitlements. These case workers all agreed that when a recipient lived in private housing her rent consumed most of her check and that utility bills consumed the rest. They therefore assumed that most recipients in private housing had additional unreported income.

The case workers Edin interviewed all turned a blind eye to such indirect evidence of cheating because investigating a recipient's unreported income would have required extra work and would not have earned them any credit with their superiors. Many case workers also felt moral scruples about preventing welfare recipients from supplementing their checks, since they believed it was impossible to live on what welfare paid. Perhaps because case workers habitually ignored all but the most flagrant evidence of cheating, officials further up in the welfare hierarchy all seemed to believe that most recipients lived on their checks.

The only other in-depth study of urban welfare recipients' non-welfare income is Jagna Sharff's field study of a Puerto Rican neighborhood in New York. After two years in the neighborhood Sharff concluded that almost every man, woman, and older child participated in the underground economy and that no welfare recipient reported such income to the welfare department. Unfortunately, Sharff did not collect data on how much income welfare families derived from the underground economy


WE HAVE NO DIRECT evidence regarding welfare recipients in other cities, but we do have indirect evidence. Food, clothing, laundry, appliances, furniture, and transportation cost about the same amount in every major city. Even rent varies less than many people imagine. Furthermore, big city rents are lower in the Midwest than in other parts of the country, so Edin's 25 welfare mothers were under less pressure to supplement their AFDC checks than mothers in many other places. In 1984-85, for example, low-income families in Midwestern metropolitan areas with 1.25 to 4 million inhabitants paid $143 a month in rent. The figure was $171 in the East, $224 in the South ' and $227 in the West. The same pattern recurs for metropolitan areas of more than 4 million (New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco). Edin's mothers needed $954 to make ends meet in the Midwest. They might have needed as much as $1,025 to live equally well in Los Angeles or San Francisco. They could not have gotten by on much less than $900 in any major American city.

If welfare mothers need $900 to $1,025 a month to make ends meet in major American cities, no state pays enough for a mother to survive on welfare alone. In 1988 a single mother with two children got cash and Food Stamps worth $750 a month in Los Angeles, $701 in New York, $699 in Detroit, $589 in Philadelphia, $552 in Chicago, $491 in Atlanta, $412 in Houston, and $346 in Birmingham.

The situation may be different in rural areas. Edin interviewed a small number of welfare mothers in rural Minnesota, where the combined value of AFDC and Food Stamps is 25 percent higher and rent is typically about half what it is in the city we studied. She found several Minnesota mothers who said they lived entirely on their AFDC check. Those who supplemented their checks also earned far less than their big-city counterparts. We would expect to find the same pattern in depressed rural areas of other high-benefit states.

In the rural South, however, making ends meet on AFDC is probably even more difficult than it is in our Midwestern city. In 1989 Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas gave welfare mothers with two children less than $200 a month in cash. While it costs less to live in the rural South than in the urban Midwest, it is hard to see how a family of three could get by on $200 a month anywhere in America, even if they did get Food Stamps. Furthermore, opportunities for supplementing AFDC are probably more limited in rural areas than in big cities. If a welfare mother gets any kind of job in a rural area, her neighbors soon know about it, which probably means her case worker knows too. Case workers may look the other way if a welfare mother earns a little money from baby sitting or cleaning someone's house, but they are unlikely to tolerate her taking a regular job without reporting her earnings.


What Do National Surveys Show?

To check the validity of our claim that very few families make ends meet on welfare alone, we looked at the Labor Department's Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES) for 1984-85. About a quarter of the original CES sample either refused to participate at all or refused to provide complete income data. Among welfare households, we estimate that about half refused to cooperate fully. We assume, though we cannot prove, that the welfare recipients who refused to cooperate were especially likely to have outside income they did not want to report.

Of the 308 households that reported having received income from AFDC during the previous 12 months, 83 percent also reported income from other sources. Half these welfare households included more than one adult. In most cases these adults were probably not part of the AFDC recipient unit, so their income did not count for the purpose of calculating welfare benefits. But even when we restrict our attention to one adult welfare households, 75 percent reported outside income. In some cases the mother may have reported this income to the welfare department. In other cases she may only have gotten welfare during part of the year and may have gotten her non-welfare income in a different part of the year. But since welfare mothers with outside income got almost as much money from welfare as those who denied receiving outside income, most of those with outside income must have been on the rolls throughout the year and must have supplemented their AFDC checks without telling the welfare department.

Even the 52 CES families that denied receiving any outside income seldom claimed to live solely on what they got from AFDC and Food Stamps. Depending on how we calculate expenses, between 31 and 45 of these families reported spending more during 1984-85 than they got from AFDC and Food Stamps. These families were seldom promising credit risks, and few had significant savings. We therefore assume that most of them had additional unreported income.

For all its limitations, the Consumer Expenditure Survey tells much the same story as Edin's interviews: hardly anyone claims to live solely on AFDC and Food Stamps. One-adult welfare families that participated in the CES spent about $6,900, of which $4,100 came from AFDC and Food Stamps, $1,400 came from other sources, and $1,400 was not accounted for. These figures are lower than the ones Edin obtained in Chicago three years later, but they support her finding that welfare mothers get only about three-fifths of what they spend from AFDC and Food Stamps.


How Do Welfare Recipients Supplement Their Incomes?

How welfare mothers earn extra money seems to depend largely on their previous experiences and current contacts. At least in Edin's tiny sample, mothers fell into two distinct groups that fit popular stereotypes about mainstream and underclass families surprisingly well.

There were 14 mainstream mothers, none of whom had grown up in a household that got welfare. All had completed high school. All had married before having children. All but one had also held a regular job at some point in her life. These mothers had all gone on welfare when their marriages broke up or, in the case of immigrants, when they arrived in the United States. None lived in neighborhoods with unusually high rates of welfare use, and only one had much contact with other welfare recipients. When these mainstream mothers worked, they had jobs that were legal in every respect except that they did not report their earnings to the Internal Revenue Service or the welfare department.

There were 11 underclass recipients, all but one of whom had grown up on welfare. All but one had also left high school without graduating, and all but one had gone on welfare after having a child out of wedlock. All knew a lot of other welfare recipients, and all but three lived in neighborhoods where a lot of other residents got welfare. Only three had ever had a regular job. Unlike the 14 mainstream recipients, the 11 underclass recipients all knew a lot of people who earned money from crime. When underclass recipients worked, they mostly did things that were inherently illegal.

Had we studied a large national sample of welfare recipients, we doubt that they would have fallen into two such distinct groups. Instead, we would expect to find a continuum running from mainstream to underclass, in which some recipients fit all the standard underclass stereotypes, some fit none, and some fell in between. But regardless of whether we think of the distinction as a continuum or a dichotomy, it is clear that welfare recipients do not all fit popular conceptions of the underclass. Many are simply women without higher education who married the wrong man.

Yet these mainstream recipients showed no more respect for the welfare department's rules and regulations than underclass recipients did. Both groups were quite ready to cheat a system that gave them too little to live on and was unlikely to punish their transgressions. Indeed, since the mainstream recipients lived in better neighborhoods, paid more rent, and had larger monthly budgets than most of the underclass recipients, they needed more unreported income to make ends meet.


THE CRUCIAL ECONOMIC difference between mainstream and underclass mothers was that most mainstream mothers had the skills and social contacts they needed to get legitimate work, whereas few underclass recipients had such skills or contacts. We infer that when welfare benefits fall, mainstream recipients are likely to seek more legitimate work, while underclass recipients are likely to sell more sex, drugs, or stolen goods.

Mainstream recipients also have some chance of finding jobs in the official economy that pay more than welfare, so they have some chance of getting off welfare before their children grow up. Indeed, three of Edin's mainstream recipients have already gotten jobs and left the rolls. Underclass recipients have almost no chance of getting off the rolls unless they marry.


What Happens to Mothers Who Can't Supplement Their Checks?

Supplementing a welfare check requires a fair amount of skill and self-confidence. We must therefore ask what happens to welfare mothers who either cannot or will not supplement their checks. We have no direct evidence on this question because Edin did not find any mothers who tried to live exclusively on welfare. Simple arithmetic shows, however, that in the city we studied a mother who does not supplement her check cannot afford to rent her own apartment in the open market. This leaves her with three options: subsidized housing, sharing a private apartment, or breaking up her family. Subsidized housing comes in two varieties: public housing projects run by the city and rent subsidies for tenants in privately owned housing. Every welfare mother wants a rent subsidy, but the waiting list is very long. For our purposes, therefore, subsidized housing usually means public housing.

As in most big cities, public housing in the city we studied is not only run down but dangerous. Many single mothers view living there with horror. Nonetheless, some mothers do live there because they cannot afford anything better. A welfare mother in public housing might be able to survive on her check if she made her own clothes, fed her family a lot of soybeans and rice, never went anywhere beyond walking distance from the project, never smoked or drank, and entertained her children entirely with library books that she always returned on time. But a mother who could do all this would probably not be on welfare in the first place. If she were, she would probably supplement her welfare check rather than forcing her children to live in public housing. Those who end up in public housing are likely to be there because they cannot get enough outside income to live elsewhere.

Urban mothers who do not supplement their AFDC checks may also be able to make ends meet if they can share their apartment with another adult who helps with the rent. A number of welfare recipients share with their mothers or with grown children who pay part of the rent. A few live with other relatives or girlfriends. Such arrangements often create a lot of conflict, but some single mothers make them work. Many single mothers also share their apartments with boyfriends, at least for short periods, but with one or two exceptions the mothers Edin interviewed did not see their boyfriends as an economic asset.

In California, Michigan, and New York, where AFDC benefits are higher than in our state, single mothers in subsidized housing might find it easier to make ends meet on welfare alone. Nationally, however, only 22 percent of welfare families live in subsidized housing. Thirty-seven percent of all welfare recipients report that their household includes at least one adult who is not on welfare, but we do not know how many contribute to the rent.

If a big city welfare mother cannot supplement her check, get into subsidized housing, or find anyone to share the rent, she will almost inevitably end up on the street. Almost every major American city now has a significant number of homeless welfare mothers. These mothers tell pretty much the same story: they fell behind on their rent, were evicted, and could not afford the security deposit and first month's rent anywhere else. Some moved in with relatives but were unable to work out a permanent arrangement. Eventually they ended up in a shelter.


SINCE MANY HOMELESS welfare mothers have histories of mental illness, alcoholism, or drug abuse, it is tempting to blame their plight on inept economic management. But if incompetence were these mothers' only problem, a welfare worker should be able to find them housing they could afford, and welfare departments should be able to keep them housed by paying the rent directly to the landlord. Such arrangements have been tried in some cities and are sometimes helpful. In most big cities, however, those who deal with the homeless rightly assume that welfare recipients cannot afford private housing. Rather than looking for cheap private apartments to house the homeless, they look for additional public subsidies. In some cities the welfare department can get homeless mothers into federally subsidized housing. In other cities it must pay their rent in hotels or private apartments. Either solution implicitly concedes that a single mother cannot make ends meet on AFDC alone.

If a welfare mother cannot find a permanent home, she is likely to conclude that she cannot care for her children properly. At that point she may ask her relatives to take the children, at least temporarily. Faced with the possibility of losing her children, however, almost every mother is willing to ignore AFDC rules and supplement her check if she can.

In 1988, 7 percent of black children, 4 percent of Hispanic children, and 2 percent of white children were not living with either their mother or their father. Unfortunately, the Census Bureau does not ask why such children are not living with their parents. Some are orphans. Some of the rest are de facto orphans, who have never had much contact with their father and have a mother who is either dead, imprisoned, mentally or physically ill, or incapacitated by drugs or alcohol. We know from anecdotal evidence that some of the remaining children have mothers who would care for them if they had more money, but we have no idea how common this is.


TRENDS OVER TIME PROVIDE some indirect evidence about the relationship between welfare benefits and mothers' ability to keep their families together. Because of an error in the way the Census Bureau used to classify children's living arrangements, we do not know exactly how many children were separated from both their parents prior to 1983. Our best estimate is that the proportion has been almost constant among whites since the early 1970s. Among blacks, the proportion separated from both parents seems to have declined from about 6 percent in 1971-72 to 4 percent in 1975-76. This was a period when welfare benefits were still rising, at least if we adjust properly for inflation. After that, welfare recipients' purchasing power began to decline, and the proportion of black children separated from both parents began to rise, reaching 6 percent in 1979-80 and 7 percent in 1987-88.

We created AFDC half a century ago to prevent single mothers from having to give up their children for economic reasons. At that time unwed mothers were still leaving newborns on doorsteps, and mothers whose husbands had died or deserted were still putting children in orphanages. AFDC was supposed to end all this, and it certainly reduced the problem. What we have created, however, is not a system that allows all single mothers to keep their children but a system that allows them to keep their children if they can supplement their welfare check in some way and conceal this fact from the welfare department. If conservative legislators were able to prevent such supplementation, as they keep trying to do, more mothers would almost inevitably have to give up their children.


How Much Can Single Mothers Earn If They Don't Collect Welfare?

If unwed motherhood, desertion, and divorce were confined to college graduates, most of whom can earn fairly good salaries, America would not need AIDC. In reality, however, less than a quarter of all single mothers have spent any time in college, and a third have not even finished high school. A single mother without higher education can seldom find a job that pays enough to support her family. When Charles Michalopoulos and Irwin Garfinkel studied single mothers who worked, they found that those who resembled welfare recipients in terms of education, labor market experience, and other demographic attributes typically earned only $4.90 an hour (in 1988 dollars). A mother who had not finished high school and had never worked before -- a common situation among underclass welfare mothers -- could only expect to earn $3.90 an hour. Even a mother with a high school diploma and ten years of work experience could expect to earn only $6.25 an hour. The one piece of good news was that black mothers earned almost as much as white mothers with the same amount of schooling.

American workers put in an average of 35 hours a week in 1988, a figure that has not changed much for a decade. Working 35 hours a week at $4.90 an hour would have yielded $172 a week. Single mothers cannot expect to work every week, however, because the jobs open to them involve frequent layoffs and terminations. The official unemployment rate among single mothers averaged 10 percent during the 1980s. The rate would have been even higher if all welfare mothers had been looking for work, since they are less employable than the average single mother. But even if welfare mothers who wanted to work 35 hours a week could do so 90 percent of the time, they would only make an average of $8,000 a year (in 1988 dollars), and half would earn less.

In an effort to increase welfare mothers' potential earnings, the Family Support Act encourages states to provide more job training. Congress authorized the first training programs for welfare mothers in 1967. Since then we have tried teaching welfare mothers to write resumes, pressuring them to apply for lots of jobs, giving them classroom instruction to improve their basic skills, and offering them temporary public service jobs. Occasionally we have even given them on-the-job training in private sector jobs.

Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution recently reviewed the numerous evaluations of these programs. Three conclusions stood out. First, most training programs for welfare mothers have been part-time, short-term, and inexpensive. Second, most forms of training have raised welfare recipients' earnings enough to justify their modest cost. Third, the low-cost training we have offered has not gotten many mothers off the welfare rolls. The reason is simple: while the programs have usually been cost-effective, their absolute benefits have always been small. None of the programs that Burtless reviewed had raised welfare recipients' earnings by more than $2,000 (in 1989 dollars), and in most cases the benefits were far smaller.

These findings do not mean we should abandon job training. We should, however, stop expecting it to work miracles. If welfare mothers can currently earn $8,000, we might plausibly expect a universal program of short-term training to raise the average to $9,000. If we offered longer and more intensive programs we might get the figure up to $10,000. If we set out to give welfare mothers full-time, multi-year training, comparable in cost to a residential college, we might be able to do more, but we have no hard evidence to support such hopes. In any event, when legislators talk about job training, they currently mean low-cost training.


Why Don't More Single Mothers Work?

Because most welfare mothers' potential earnings are so low, work seldom has much economic payoff for those who follow the rules. Table 1 illustrates the economic consequences of taking a fulltime job for a welfare mother with two children who lived in Pennsylvania (a fairly typical state) in 1987. If she did not work at all, her income from AFDC and Food Stamps would have been about $6,500. If she earned $8,000 and reported her earnings to the welfare department, she would have lost all her AFDC benefits and her Medicaid coverage within a year, though she would still have gotten most of her Food Stamps. She would also have been eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which would have offset her Social Security and state income taxes. In the end, she would have grossed $3,100 more by working than by staying on welfare.

Unfortunately, working would also have raised her expenses. Since she would lose her Medicaid coverage, she would have to pay her own medical bills, which would have averaged about $800 in 1987. She would also have needed different (and often better) clothing if she worked, which would have cost her an average of $200. In a big city, she would probably have been able to take public transportation to work, which would have cost her about $500 a year. Elsewhere, she would probably have needed a car, which would have cost her far more. Thus even if our Pennsylvania mother got free childcare, working full time would have raised her net income only $1,600. If she had to pay for childcare, as roughly half of all working single mothers do, she would have been worse off working than on welfare. If she got no child support, even a job paying $10,000 a year would have left her with only $700 more than she got on welfare.

The calculations in Table 1 also make it easy to see why so many unskilled single mothers spend so much of their adult lives on welfare. The essence of the so-called welfare trap is not that welfare warps women's personalities or makes them pathologically dependent, though that may occasionally happen. The essence of the trap is that while welfare pays badly, low-wage jobs pay even worse. Most welfare mothers are quite willing to work if they end up with significantly more disposable income as a result. But they are not willing to work if working will leave them as poor as they were when they stayed home.


How Much Must a Single Mother Earn to Make Ends Meet?

In Edin's sample, only one of the 19 mothers who lived in private housing got by on less than $10,600 in 1988. If a single mother worked in the official economy, we estimate that she would have needed an additional $800 for medical bills, $200 for clothing, $500 for transportation, and $1,200 for childcare. Even Edin's most frugal mothers would therefore have needed about $13,000 after taxes (or $15,000 before taxes) to make ends meet.

If they got no child support and worked 35 hours a week, they would have had to earn at least $9 an hour to average $15,000 a year. That is a lot of money by current American standards. The average wage for all nonagricultural workers in the United States, male and female, skilled and unskilled, was only $9.42 in 1988.

All these calculations lead inexorably to one conclusion. An unskilled single mother cannot expect to support herself and her children in today's labor market either by working or by collecting welfare. If she wants to make ends meet, she must either get help from someone else (usually an absent father, parent, or boyfriend) or she must combine work and welfare. At present, the only way she can combine work and welfare is to collect AFDC and then work without telling the welfare department.


The Make em Suffer Strategy for Cutting the Rolls

Between 1964 and 1972, when liberals shaped American social policy, the combined purchasing power of AFDC and Food Stamps for a family of four rose 40 percent. During these years court decisions and administrative changes eliminated some of the more humiliating features of welfare receipt, such as midnight raids to check on recipients' sexual behavior, and they also made it easier for single mothers to get on the welfare rolls. As a result, the fraction of all single mothers receiving AFDC (the take-up rate) rose from 29 percent in 1964 to 63 percent in 1972. State-to-state comparisons suggest that this increase was largely due to changes in administrative practice and in the way people felt about being on welfare rather than changes in cash benefits, but it is hard to be sure.

Conservative legislators have long believed that single mothers should work rather than collecting welfare. Since they do not want to spend public money to make work more attractive, their strategy has been to make welfare less attractive. We will call this the make em suffer strategy for cutting the rolls. Since the mid-1970s, conservatives have been moderately successful in implementing this strategy.

Between 1976 and 1988 the typical welfare recipient's purchasing power fell about 16 percent. Getting on welfare also became harder, and staying on took more time and effort. As New York City discovered during its fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s, a welfare department can cut its rolls substantially by hassling recipients.

If it asks applicants to fill out long forms requiring extensive documentation, rejects applications that are incomplete or contain errors, and forces rejected applicants to appeal or reapply, some will give up. The same methods can drive some current recipients off the rolls. As concern about cutting costs and catching cheaters increased during the late 1970s and 1980s, hassling recipients became increasingly common.

A welfare department can also cut its rolls by closing offices, forcing single mothers to travel further to meet their case worker. Understaffing offices, so recipients must wait all day to do their business, can also cut the rolls. If welfare recipients must spend a lot of time in training programs they believe to be worthless, this too will cut the rolls though recipients like training programs that they think will lead to a good job. Forcing recipients to do unpaid community service can also make welfare less attractive.

Figure 2 suggests that some combination of declining real benefits and increasing hassles cut the welfare take-up rate among single mothers from over 60 percent in the mid-1970s to about 45 percent in 1988. The absolute number of recipients has not dropped, but this is only because the number of single mothers keeps rising.

Conservatives used to argue, of course, that a less generous welfare system would discourage single motherhood by making it financially painful. Figure 2 suggests that this was a pipe dream. For reasons nobody fully understands, single motherhood has spread steadily since 1960 no matter what we did to welfare benefits. Among families with children, the proportion headed by unmarried women rose between 1960 and 1964, when welfare benefits were almost constant. It kept rising between 1964 and 1976, when benefits were rising. And it kept rising from 1976 to 1988, when real benefits were falling. Comparisons between states with high and low benefits tell the same story: the generosity or stinginess of the welfare system has very little effect on a state's illegitimacy or divorce rate. If the goal of the make em suffer strategy is to discourage single motherhood, it must be judged a failure.

Defenders of the make em suffer strategy could argue, of course, that it has never had a fair trial. The purchasing power of the benefit package has only fallen about 16 percent since the mid-1970s, and the rules conservatives invented to make welfare less attractive have not all been implemented. In particular, the rule that recipients must report their outside income so that the welfare department can deduct it from their AFDC check has never been well enforced.

If conservatives were prepared to spend a lot more money spying on welfare recipients and prosecuting fraud, they could presumably make failure to report outside income somewhat riskier. Such a change might drive some single mothers off the rolls. But the monetary costs of such spying would almost certainly outweigh the savings, and the political costs would also be high. If this strategy were to succeed, moreover, it would substantially increase material hardship among single mothers and their children.


Can Welfare Benefits Be Raised?

Liberals' traditional response to the economic problems of single mothers has been to push for higher AFDC benefits. We believe this is a mistake. The only politically viable strategy for significantly improving the economic position of single mothers and their children over the next generation is, we believe, to concentrate on helping those who work in low-wage jobs.

American liberals have a habit of trying to help the neediest. Because AFDC benefits have always been low, welfare mothers look like the neediest of the needy. As a result liberals have fought hard to help welfare recipients, while largely ignoring single mothers with low-wage jobs. Welfare recipients have always gotten Medicaid, for example, while equally impoverished working mothers seldom have.

Legislators' failure to help single mothers with low-wage jobs has turned the American welfare system into a political and moral disaster. To begin with, it has made welfare synonymous with helping people who do nothing to help themselves. In addition, it has created a system in which unskilled single mothers cannot improve their situation by working harder -- a situation that violates deeply held ideals that cut across all partisan divisions. Such a system will never have many political supporters, even among hard-core liberals. If we try to prop it up, we will fail. Welfare benefits will remain low, single mothers will remain poor, and we will turn another generation of recipients into outlaws.

By now most liberal legislators have accepted the conservative view that we should encourage single mothers to work. This shift in liberal opinion has reflected a change in public attitudes towards mothers who work. Even affluent mothers are now going out to work in unprecedented numbers. This change has made it increasingly difficult to argue, as liberals once did, that single mothers should have a right to stay home with their children at the taxpayer's expense. Most Americans now see staying home with their children as a luxury for mothers who can afford it and want to do it, not as a right. Few see any reason why they should pay to make this luxury available to the poor.

Today the only way to justify paying women to stay home and care for their children is to claim that this will be good for the children, not the mothers. This was an easy case to make in the 1950s, when most Americans saw working mothers as child abusers. Now that more than half of all mothers work, the idea that they are doing their children irreparable damage is less popular. It is also incompatible with the evidence. Comparisons between children whose mothers do and don't work offer little support for the idea that staying home does children much good. Some studies show benefits, some show costs, and most show no effect. If working does harm a mother's children, the effect is too small to be of much social importance.


DEFENDES OF WELFARE CAN still argue, of course, that it is cheaper to pay unskilled women to care for their children than to provide their children with high quality daycare at public expense. For very young children, this argument is correct. As a result, almost everyone who has thought about the problem agrees that we need some variant of welfare for single mothers with infants and toddlers. But once children are toilet-trained they require less attention. From a strictly economic viewpoint, it seldom makes sense to pay single mothers to stay home with such children, especially after they enter kindergarten.

If staying home does not make economic sense, does not do the children much good, and is not a right society wants to guarantee every mother, the case for welfare collapses. At the moment, most liberal legislators still assume that welfare mothers are needier than single mothers with jobs, so they feel some moral obligation to improve welfare benefits. We doubt, however, that even this assumption will survive the 1990s. Most Northern states provide welfare packages as generous as what employers offer unskilled workers. As the number of working mothers increases, the political case for helping them will become ever more compelling. As this happens, more and more liberal legislators are likely to realize that the moral case for helping single mothers with low-wage jobs is also stronger than the case for helping those who do not work. Once this happens, the existing welfare system will be doomed.


Strategies for Helping Single Mothers Who Work

Most legislators, both liberal and conservative, now agree that we should try to make work pay for single mothers. Conservatives want to do this by cutting welfare benefits, while liberals want to increase the benefits of work. Thus far, liberal attempts to make work more rewarding have taken three forms: job training, raising the minimum wage, and tougher enforcement of absent fathers' child support obligations. All these efforts are overdue, but they will not greatly increase the income of single mothers who work.

Job Training. As we have seen, even universal job training would probably not raise the average welfare mother's potential earnings by more than $1,000 or $2,000.

The Minimum Wage. Congress has voted to raise the minimum wage from $3.45 to $4.25 by 1991. Yet even if every welfare mother could find steady work at $4.25 an hour, her expected earnings would be less than $8,000 a year. If we make realistic assumptions about unemployment rates, the figure is likely to be more like $6,000 or $7,000.

If we wanted to ensure that every single mother could support herself and two children from her earnings alone, we would have needed a minimum wage of at least $9 an hour in 1988. Political difficulties aside, raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour would be an economic disaster. Most American communities already have more unskilled workers than unskilled jobs. Anything that raises the cost of hiring unskilled workers will further reduce demand for their services. If McDonald's had to pay its workers $9 an hour, for example, a Big Mac would cost twice what it now costs, and more working people would make their lunches at home, reducing the number of fast-food jobs. Likewise, if manufacturers had to pay unskilled workers $9 an hour, they would buy more machines to replace unskilled workers and would move more plants overseas, where unskilled workers are cheaper and often more reliable. This is not a promising way of solving single mothers' problems.

Child Support. Better child support enforcement makes work more attractive because the law allows a working mother to keep whatever the absent father contributes. A welfare mother, in contrast, can keep only the first $50 of the father's monthly contribution. The more the father pays, therefore, the bigger the advantage to the mother of working rather than collecting welfare.

But the absent fathers of children on welfare are usually young, poorly educated, and poorly paid. Furthermore, judges and legislators seldom expect them to allocate more than 30 percent of their income to their children. As a result, their child support payments seldom amount to much, even when they make them. Under the widely used Wisconsin standard, for example, the typical absent father would have owed only $2,000 in 1987. Since many absent fathers now pay nothing at all and many others pay only part of what they owe, collecting even $2,000 would represent a substantial improvement over the present situation. But a big-city mother with two children who got $2,000 from an absent father would still need about $13,000 from other sources to make ends meet. Relatively few single mothers will be able to earn that much in the near future.

Liberals clearly need a new strategy for helping single mothers. In trying to formulate such a strategy we can afford to be flexible about details so long as we keep in mind three basic principles:

  • Urban families with children can seldom make ends meet on incomes below the poverty line. Any policy that pretends families can somehow make do on the sums that welfare currently gives them is a fraud, and it will force welfare recipients to engage in fraud. If mothers work, they will need incomes substantially above the poverty line, since they will have to pay for childcare, transportation, and taxes.
  • Single mothers without higher education cannot usually earn enough to support themselves and their families. This will remain true even if we raise the minimum wage to $5 or even $6 an hour, get more welfare mothers to return to school, and provide more and better job training.
  • While child support enforcement can help single mothers with low-wage jobs make ends meet, they also need direct help from the public treasury.


Broadly speaking, there are two ways of using public funds to help single mothers who work: we can modify the existing welfare system so it helps those who work, or we can gradually create a separate system of government-financed fringe benefits for all working parents. Modifying the existing welfare system would be cheaper, at least in the short run. In the long run, however, a program of fringe benefits for all working parents would win more political support, be more just, and do more good.


Transforming AFDC

The simplest way to help single mothers who work is to let all single mothers collect AFDC, regardless of how much outside income they get. This approach would, in effect, convert AFDC into a child support system for single mothers. Instead of seeing welfare as a program that ought to provide single mothers with a decent standard of living but doesn't, we would redefine it as a program that ought to provide single mothers with enough income so they can make ends meet if they also work, get child support, or get help from their boyfriend or family This is the way welfare recipients already look at the program. By making their behavior legal, we would encourage their efforts at self-help instead of discouraging them.

If all single mothers were eligible for AFDC, the cost of AFDC in fiscal 1990 would have been about $35 billion instead of $20 billion. Instead of accounting for roughly 0.5 percent of all personal income, AFDC would have accounted for almost 1 percent. Allowing all single mothers to collect AFDC would have at least three benefits. First, more single mothers would work in the official economy, where jobs usually provide more valuable experience and pay better than the off-the-books jobs that welfare mothers now take. Second, single mothers would no longer have to choose between keeping their families together and breaking the law (though some would no doubt, continue to lie about their living arrangements). Third, material hardship would decline among single mothers, and it would decline most among those who now obey the law and work in low-wage jobs.

Despite these advantages, making AFDC available to all single mothers seems politically impractical. Welfare is America's least popular government program. Few politicians would want their name associated with a proposal that doubled the number of welfare recipients, even if the proposal also changed the meaning of being on welfare. Furthermore, if we eliminated restrictions on welfare recipients' outside income, legislators would soon cut welfare benefits, leaving single mothers unable to make ends meet even if they worked. Single mothers are a relatively small, unorganized, and unpopular group. A program aimed exclusively at them will never be a generous program.


Helping All Parents with Low-Wage Jobs

Given these political difficulties, liberals should probably follow Daniel Patrick Moynihan's advice to Richard Nixon on race and subject welfare to a protracted period of benign neglect. Instead of trying to reform a system that has resisted reform for as long as it has existed, liberals should try to construct a new system that focuses explicitly on helping all parents who work in low-wage jobs. Rewarding work is consistent with current American values. And trying to help low-wage workers with families is consistent with widespread legislative concern about the current condition of children.

New initiatives to help low-wage parents also seem a natural response to the steady decline in unskilled workers' purchasing power over the past generation. The average male worker's real earnings have hardly changed over the past two decades, but the real wages of the least educated have fallen, while the real wages of the best educated have risen. A national effort to help those at the bottom could, we suspect, win widespread support from the Democrats' traditional constituency.

In shaping a program of fringe benefits for working Americans, we should focus on workers who are trying to support children. Here are some obvious possibilities:

  • Provide extra cash to parents who work at low-wage jobs. We can do this by increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit. We should also make the credit larger for families with children Provide tax credits for childcare expenses to families in which all the adults have full-time jobs. Single mothers would get these credits if they worked. Two-parent families would get them if both parents worked.
  • Allow all workers to buy Medicaid coverage for themselves and their family for, say, 5 percent of their earnings. (Or better yet, provide universal health insurance with premiums tied to income.)
  • Give all parents who work a tax credit for housing expenses equivalent to what we now give those who are lucky enough to live in Section 8 housing. Failing that, at least give all working parents who rent their homes a tax credit equivalent to what we now give the average homeowner.
  • Provide mortgage subsidies for working parents who buy homes in low-income neighborhoods, helping to stabilize these neighborhoods.


All these benefits should be defined as rewards for work, like Social Security. Except for medical care, they should not be defined as universal rights, or they will be seen as offering the undeserving something for nothing. Because Americans have such a strong prejudice against siphoning money through the public treasury, such benefits will probably have to decline as family income rises, but our goal should be to ensure that every working parent gets some benefit from each program.

If programs of this kind existed today, the great majority of welfare mothers would seek regular employment. Even in what passes for a full employment economy, however, there are many depressed communities where unskilled women cannot find enough work. When the economy goes into recession, as it periodically will, such communities will become far more numerous. In areas where unemployment exceeds, say, 6 percent we should therefore offer single mothers low-wage public service jobs that entitle them to the fringe benefits we have described.

Even in tight labor markets there will be some single mothers whom nobody wants to hire. Some of these women ought to qualify for disability benefits. The remainder should stay in the existing AFDC system. But if we really made work pay for single mothers, the welfare rolls would shrink dramatically.

A program for making low-wage work economically attractive could win broad political support. Perhaps more important, it could retain such support over the long haul, because it would be seen as re-enforcing rather than subverting the work ethic. We cannot create such a system overnight. Indeed, we probably cannot do it in a decade. But what liberals need most today is not a program they can get through Congress next year. They need an agenda worth pursuing over the long run. To be viable over the long run, a support system for single mothers must embrace all working parents and must allow them to combine earnings from regular jobs with fringe benefits financed by the federal government.

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