Welfare reform is working remarkably well, writes Kay Hymowitz in City Journal. Welfare caseloads are way down; so is child poverty. Most welfare leavers are working, and they don’t see their jobs as “dead-end.” Their children are doing no worse or better than before. When the boom ended, some welfare leavers lost their jobs and poverty rates rose, but the numbers are far better than before welfare reform went into effect. Welfare caseloads continue to fall.
Hymowitz asks why progressives were so wrong in their predictions and concludes labor economists ignored “the key role that values, or culture, plays in making people into productive citizens who go to school, do their homework, plan their lives, and work to support themselves and their families.”
Human beings tend to do pretty much what they are expected to do. When the culture expects self-sufficiency, people will try to achieve it. When the culture sends mixed messages about self-sufficiency, as it did during the old welfare regime — particularly to the minority poor — some will not try to become self-sufficient. Experts couldn’t calculate that simple dynamic, since fuzzy notions like values, norms, and culture are not easily quantifiable.
While never-married mothers are much more likely to work, they’re not a lot more likely to get married, Hymowitz writes. For one thing, welfare reform had little affect on the fathers of poor children.
Reform optimists predicted that by heightening women’s self-respect and belief in their future, work would make them more marriage-minded. “Women, realizing welfare won’t support them, may begin to make better choices: demanding more from the men in their lives, delaying childbirth, teaming up with breadwinners,” journalist Mickey Kaus theorized. Reformers also hoped that work requirements would act as a deterrent: girls seeing their mothers and older sisters juggling a low-paying job, an apartment, and children, all without a husband’s help, would shun such a life.
That didn’t really happen, though the increase in the rate of out-of-wedlock births slowed with the advent of welfare reform. The next step is to persuade poor men to get a steady job and get married before fathering children — and it’s a doozy.