In response to an earlier post on welfare reform, I got a thoughtful question from Ari at NYU. I started to write back to him directly, but the thought his question inspired led me to develop a new post in the ongoing GC dialogue.
At this point I am inclined to abolish welfare altogether. The Earned Income Tax Credit is really a much more effective and politically feasible kind of poor support. If we expanded EITC, provided basic medical care for poor people, and some supplements for child care, we could eliminate welfare for able-bodied people, period. The truly disabled could be absorbed into Supplemental Security Income. The lazy would sponge off their mothers.
Your question, though, was about fathers. I think the crucial failing of all father-involvement programs thus far, especially those aimed at black fathers, has been that they are unwilling to push marriage. They cite the low employment rate, high rate of committing crimes and getting caught, and other obstacles to poor fathers marrying and supporting their families. The most important fact about marriage and fatherhood for men, though, is that it tends to change them into productive people. Waiting for men to get responsible first, then having them marry, will not work with many men, especially those already on the track to poverty. Simply being willing to say it, to use the bully pulpit in every way to push parents to marry for the sake of their children, would help change the climate.
There are many couples with children who are waiting until they save enough money to have a wedding. This is sick. See my posts on "Marry Your Baby Daddy."
If we are to keep welfare, the next strongest step down, I think, would be temporary sterilization of the mother and father for as long as they receive welfare. The "temporary" is the crucial word here - Norplant works, and was only squeezed out for political reasons. A male equivalent could easily be developed. Getting welfare would depend on identifying the father, who would also be subject to temporary sterilization. If she was unwilling to identify the father, or he was unwilling to cooperate, she could only get, say, half the benefits. Equally important in this plan is that it only applies to people on welfare. If you are not asking the taxpayers to foot the bill, you can pursue any foolish plan you want, just as you can now.
At this point we come to the chasm of the politically feasible. The basic fact is that you can't make people think and live like the bourgeoisie. If they don't live their lives by planning ahead, deferring gratification, working now to reap benefits later, then showing them the benefits they could get later from planning ahead now are mostly to no avail. The part of welfare reform that works is that you have to get a job or lose your benefits now. The part of welfare reform that would work with the middle-class welfare reformers, but will not work so well with most welfare recipients, is the lifetime limit on getting welfare. They take what they can get today, and worry about tomorrow tomorrow. They are survivors, not planners. If they were planners, most wouldn't be on welfare in the first place.
Given this fact, one good thing we can do is de-racialize the welfare discussion. Most people on welfare are white. This is always a surprise to my students. And most black people are not on welfare, or even poor. This goes double for other non-white ethnic groups. This is also often a surprise to my students. As Promises I Can Keep makes clear, young welfare moms of all races reason in similar ways. The main obstacle to disconnecting the welfare and race discussions is the way-low black marriage rate. As I have pushed here often, the forces trying to improve the lives of African Americans have to be willing to push for marriage. Marriage is good for all races of kids and couples. I am convinced that if the marriage rates for all races and ethnic groups were the same, almost all other ethnic differences in social problems would disappear.
Finally, I should say that the current welfare reform is pretty good. It has led to massive reductions of the welfare rolls from women who could work, many of whom were already working. It is hard to extend to men because most of them aren't on welfare. Many are sponging off women who are on welfare, but there really isn't any way in a free country to touch them if the women let them sponge. Things are already getting better on the welfare front.