By William J. Bennett and Peter Wehner*
March 1994 – In a recent Wall Street Journal article, social scientist Charles Murray called for ending the current welfare system. It had an explosive effect and set off a chain reaction that in a dozen weeks has transformed the welfare debate. We are now at one of those rare political moments when a fundamental, even radical, and positive change in public policy is possible. That reform of this magnitude is even possible can be explained by three things:
• Widespread acceptance of overwhelming empirical evidence: The current system is a complete failure. We have spent enormous sums over the past three decades on welfare programs and what do we have to show for it? An underclass which is much larger, more violent, more poorly educated and which consists of many more single-parent families.
Reaction to Murray has been overwhelmingly favorable, including positive reaction from unlikely places. Here’s what President Clinton said in a recent interview about welfare’s fiercest and most prominent critic: “(Murray) did the country a great service. I mean, he and I have often disagreed, but I think his analysis is essentially right.... There’s no question that (ending welfare for single mothers) would work. The question is is it morally right?”
Clinton’s firm embrace of the Murray analysis means the intellectual debate over welfare policy is essentially over; we are now debating the relative merits of changing the current system vs. dismantling it.
• Acknowledgment among experts in the field that a strong link exists between social pathologies, exploding rates of illegitimacy and welfare payments to single mothers. By the end of the decade according to the most reliable projections, 40% of all American births and 80% of minority births will be illegitimate. These numbers have frightening social implications.
Welfare may not cause illegitimacy, but it does make it economically viable. There is hardly any question anymore that illegitimacy rates would fall, probably dramatically, if payments under the Aid for Families with Dependent Children program were stopped. Welfare is illegitimacy’s economic life-support system.
• Agreement on an important moral principle: Having children out of wedlock is wrong—not simply economically unwise for the individuals involved, or a financial burden on society, but morally wrong.
Even Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, she of impeccable liberal credentials, said in a recent interview that “I don’t like to put this in moral terms but I do believe that having children out of wedlock is just wrong.”
Unfortunately it is not at all clear that politicians, including most Republicans, are willing to propose legislation that is intellectually consistent with the arguments and analysis. Most proposals now on the table miss the essential point of welfare reform – not to ensure tougher work provisions and job training but to go after, root and branch, a system that fosters illegitimacy and its attendant social pathologies.
Republicans should propose in this congressional session to end welfare for anyone having a child out of wedlock. Our preference is to end, one year after the legislation is passed, all forms of economic support for single mothers who have new children, including AFDC payments, subsidized housing and food stamps; further, end at a specific date all forms of assistance for those single mothers currently on welfare, end visitation rights of illegitimate fathers and change tax codes to make them more favorable to marriage and children.
The specifics are less important than the end game; sometime soon we want welfare to end, and when it does we can judge these policies, and their broad social consequences, against reality.
Making adoption easier is an essential and compassionate part of this effort. Adoption is the best alternative we have to protect a child’s interest in a post-welfare world. The demand is virtually unlimited, but society has made adoption exceedingly difficult. Lifting restrictions on interracial adoption and easing age limitations for adoptive parents will, among other measures, help ensure that large numbers of children will be adopted into good, stable, loving homes. And for older children, we must invest generously in the kinds of orphanages and group homes that provide order and care.
Ending welfare in this way is prudent, humane and politically smart. It is prudent because the social science evidence is in: Illegitimacy is the surest road to poverty and social decay. And welfare subsidizes and sustains illegitimacy.
It is humane because many more people would live far better lives if we scrapped an entire system that subsidizes out of-wedlock births. Here’s “tough love” on a large scale: End welfare, and young girls considering having a baby out of wedlock would face more deterrents, greater social stigma and more economic penalties arrayed against them if they have babies. There would therefore be far fewer births to unwed mothers, and far greater life opportunities for those girls.
It is politically smart for Republicans because anything less than calling for an end to welfare will probably ensure that the debate will be conducted on Bill Clinton’s terms. That’s a sure political loser. On the other hand, calling for the complete abolishment of AFDC is an opportunity for Republicans to make a clean principled break with an old failed system; seize the mantle of true reform; and help return our nation to an older, better time, when moral common sense was the touchstone of social policy.
Our welfare system is the most pernicious government program of the past quarter century. (It is also, ironically, one of the most well-intentioned.) We have lost large parts of an entire generation because of the terrible human wreckage left in its wake. Enough is enough. It’s time to pull the plug.
* William Bennett is the co-director and Peter Wehner, policy director of Empower America. Bennett is former Secretary of Education and federal drug czar and is author of The Book of Virtues.