Mon 23 Feb, 2009
Tags: Absent fathers, Racial stereotypes, Single parents, Unwed mothers, Welfare
This post is about single-parent families and the role of welfare. Like the last post, it was inspired by a comment on an earlier entry, and aims to debunk a few common myths.
A regular (indeed, prolific) commenter here made the following observation this morning:
I think the welfare programs of the 60’s encouraged fathers to leave/not join their families==women got more money without men around to spend the welfare check on beer which led to being able to live on welfare by having kids.
I’m not unsympathetic to the idea that government assistance should not come with strings which interfere with healthy family relationships. However, it’s apparent that there are several myths about black families, welfare, and single-parent households which are entrenched in this country.
I have previously posted about the persistent myth that most welfare recipients in this country are black. It is true, of course, that black families are disproportionately represented on the welfare rolls, if only because blacks are disproportionately represented among poorer Americans. However, depending on how welfare is defined, either whites are the majority of welfare recipients or whites and blacks are represented in roughly equal numbers.
Welfare incentives for having children
Does welfare encourage parents to have children in order to receive welfare checks?
The answer is no, and this is not merely a result of welfare reform in the mid-1990s, which aimed to eliminate such incentives. Between 1969 and 1994, for instance, the average size of families on welfare decreased significantly, from four people to less than three. As of 1994, in fact, the average family on welfare was no larger than the average family not on welfare; 43% of welfare families included just one child, while 73% consisted of one or two children. Research even before welfare reform showed that welfare benefits were not a significant incentive to have children.
Welfare incentives for how to raise children
Does welfare encourage women to have children without a father in the picture?
The issue of single parents is often described as a problem of unwed mothers and absent fathers, particularly when describing black parents or families on welfare. However, even in these cases, this portrait is strikingly misleading.
Single-parenting is a phenomenon which disproportionately affects black families, but which has significantly impacted families of all races since the early 1960s. The trend towards unwed parents, in fact, arose simultaneously in families both on and off welfare, as a result of the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, not because of the Great Society programs of the 1960s.
According to a 2001 Brookings Institution paper on the Fragile Families Study, unmarried parents are often parents who simply aren’t married. Half of unmarried parents are living together when their child is born, and another third of such couples are in a romantic relationship at the time. In only 9% of cases, in fact, do the parents have little or no contact.
Even more strikingly, four-fifths of the unwed fathers in this study provided financial support during the pregnancy, and when born, four-fifths of the children were given their father’s last name. Most of the parents, both mothers and fathers, say that they want both of them to be involved in raising the child. Almost three-quarters of the mothers, in fact, believed that their chances of marrying the father were even or better. Almost two-thirds said that they believe that being married is better for the children.
According to the same Brookings Institution paper, the problem with unwed parents isn’t welfare at all. On the contrary, it’s poverty, education, and lack of opportunities. While almost all fathers in the study, for instance, had worked in the year prior to the birth of their children, almost 30% were out of work in the week before the birth. Similarly, unwed parents were much more likely not to have graduated high school. On the other hand, unwed parents were highly committed to their children and to each other.
The means-testing of welfare does mean that parents have an incentive to live apart, or to convince the government that they do.
The effects of single-parent families
What are the effects of having only one parent raising a child?
A 2003 study in the journal Child Development found that in black families, the presence or absence of a father had no effect on the child’s cognitive abilities, language competence, or behavior. However, the quality of the role played by fathers in the family played a significant role in all of these measures of the well-being of their child. This suggests that the role of a father can be important in child rearing, but that merely encouraging marriage, joint living arrangements, or paternal involvement is not the answer.
More extensive research on single-parenting has been conducted by Sara S. McLanahan, a scholar at Princeton, some of which is summarized in her article, “Father Absence and the Welfare of Children,” in Eileen Mavis Hetherington, ed., Coping with Divorce, Single Parenting, and Remarriage: A Risk and Resiliency Perspective (1999).
McLanahan finds that “most children who grow up with single parents do quite well.” She does find certain modest, but not large, differences between children raised by one or two parents, in terms of completing high school, going to college, and being steadily employed. But she concludes that there is not enough difference to suggest that absent fathers are the major cause of significant social ills.
It’s also important, I think, to pay attention to why McLanahan detects some differences in children raised with one parent, usually the mother, rather than two. She finds that roughly half of the difference is attributable to the lack of the second parent’s income. The other half is split roughly equally between diminished parental attention and disruptions caused by residential mobility and, thus, disrupted neighborhood and community ties. Notable is what is absent from these causal factors, including any distinctive characteristic of fathers as parents, moral character to two-parent families, or other factors which might not be compensated for in other ways.