Welfare reform was supposed to discourage unmarried childbearing. However, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) recently disclosed that out-of-wedlock births are at a record high. The Census Bureau also reports that, for the first time, married couples constitute less than half of the nation’s households. Thus, whatever the budgetary savings over the past ten years, from the standpoint of the family, welfare reform has failed.
The continued rise in out-of-wedlock births no longer proceeds from just low-income teenagers. In fact, the NCHS reports that the birthrate among girls 10 to 17 dropped to the lowest level on record. It is the sharp rise in births among unmarried mothers in their late 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s that accounts for the record levels. Inspired by such books as Rosanna Hertz’s Single by Chance, Mothers by Choice and Peggy Drexler’s Raising Boys Without Men, these women are moving beyond divorce to dispense with marriage altogether.
It would be a mistake to attribute this trend solely to cultural and lifestyle decadence. The ongoing sexual revolution is now codified in government policies that do more than discourage family formation: They empower officials to dissolve families and offer generous rewards for doing so. The growth of unwed childbearing in the middle class, like the older problem in low-income communities, grows directly out of welfare.
While the conservative focus on the broader cultural causes of illegitimacy is appropriate, neglecting the practical legal issues can hinder our ability to confront the problem. Political scientist James Q. Wilson epitomizes the conservative establishment’s paralysis when he throws up his hands: “If you believe, as I do, in the power of culture, you will realize that there is very little one can do.”
Many social conservatives have cast “family values” in terms of issues that, while undeniably important, are more consequences than causes of family breakdown. Today, the most direct threat to the family is not homosexuality, pornography, popular culture, euthanasia, cloning, or abortion. It is the elephant that barged into America’s living rooms almost four decades ago: As Michael McManus of Marriage Savers writes, “Divorce is a far more grievous blow to marriage than today’s challenge by gays.” While this, too, began as a lifestyle option, it quickly translated into highly destructive policies.
Beginning in the 1970’s, America quietly embarked on the boldest social experiment in her history. With no public discussion of the possible consequences, laws were enacted in virtually every jurisdiction that ended marriage as a legal contract and precluded couples from creating binding agreements to rear children. Regardless of the terms on which a marriage is entered, government officials can now, at the request of one spouse, simply dissolve it over the objection of the other and with no penalty to the moving party. As far as the federal and state governments are concerned, all couples are cohabiting.
The sexual revolution prepared the way for this massive change, but, as Melanie Phillips writes in The Sex-Change Society, “The divorce laws . . . were reformed by unrepresentative groups with very particular agendas of their own and which were not in step with public opinion.” Changes in the law preceded the cultural shift, as “Public attitudes were gradually dragged along behind laws that were generally understood at the time to mean something very different from what they subsequently came to represent.”
The National Association of Women Lawyers claims credit for pioneering no-fault divorce, which it describes as “the greatest project NAWL has ever undertaken.” As early as 1947, NAWL began promoting no-fault divorce to bar associations and state governments.
While the left was revolutionizing the legal structure of marriage, the conservative response was to lament and bemoan. “Republicans did not want to alienate their upscale constituents or their libertarian wing, both of whom tended to favor easy divorce,” writes Barbara Whitehead in The Divorce Culture, “nor did they want to call attention to the divorces among their own leadership.” When Vice President Dan Quayle famously denounced unwed motherhood, he was careful to add, “I am not talking about a situation where there is a divorce.” Maggie Gallagher’s complaint has become a prophecy for today’s politics: “Opposing gay marriage . . . is for Republicans an easy, juicy, risk-free issue. . . . The message [is] that at all costs we should keep divorce off the political agenda.”
The divorce revolution weakened marriage and fatherhood among members of the middle class in striking parallel to what welfare inflicted on the poor. In addition, the surge in divorce has expanded the welfare state itself to include the middle class, turning programs conceived to address the problems of low-income, single-parent homes into financial incentives for middle-class divorce.
The welfare reform of 1996 did not end the federal subsidy of single-mother homes; instead, it shifted it to mandatory child support—after all, fathers should be supporting their children. Like the original federalization of child-support enforcement back in 1975, the target was willfully absent fathers who had abandoned their children, leaving them on the dole.
In fact, no evidence has ever demonstrated that large numbers of fathers were or are deserting their families and not paying child support. Unchallenged research has long established that fathers are forcibly separated from their children by divorce courts and criminalized by child-support orders that are patently impossible to pay. The “deadbeat dad” is largely the creation of bureaucratic policies and of the feminist ideology that drives them.
Over the years, child support has increasingly functioned less as a way to reduce or recover welfare costs and more as a forced subsidy on middle-class divorce. States are paid by federal taxpayers based on the amount they collect. This encourages them to neglect welfare families, for whom the program was designed, because there is little money to be had. Instead, enforcement agencies have shifted their focus to middle-class families, for whom the program was never intended, because they can collect large sums and, with them, lucrative federal funds, which can then be spent for any purpose. Using child support, state governments found they could raise revenue through the growth of single-parent homes.
The perversity of the incentives is diabolical. States have a financial incentive to generate fatherless children in the middle class, which they procure by providing sweeteners for single motherhood—expedited divorce, automatic and exclusive mother custody (regardless of fault), minimal visitation by fathers—turning as many men as possible into payers (including some who are not even fathers) and setting child-support awards as high as possible. It is hardly surprising that the vast majority of divorces in which children are involved are now filed by women.
Federally regulated child support effectively transformed welfare from an issue involving public assistance into one of law enforcement, creating yet another federal police force without clear constitutional justification. The welfare state is employing the penal apparatus to ensure itself continued funding and growth, with methods far more draconian than those used (so far) to collect taxation.
These programs are virtually unassailable, not only because they balance state budgets, but because they play upon our natural sympathy for women and children. Anyone questioning child support incurs feminist charges of defending “deadbeat dads.” Further, by appealing to superficially conservative values, feminists have gained allies among centrist Democrats as well as the neoconservatives who dominate Republican family policy. Even family-values conservatives are reluctant to challenge policies they know to be driving single motherhood and criminalizing fatherhood.
This tacit left-right collusion has locked us into a tragic bureaucratic cycle in which the cures are causing the disease. And the malady of fatherlessness will continue to worsen as long as government officials have a free pass to socialize childrearing.
Whatever its intentions, the state can never create or restore family life. The best it can do is stop destroying it.
Stephen Baskerville, an assistant professor of government at Patrick Henry College, is the author of Taken Into Custody: The War Against Fathers, Marriage, and the Family (Cumberland House).
This article first appeared in the January 2008 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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