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.


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

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


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.


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
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.


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


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.


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