Yefet went on a trip with Melissa. It was so exciting to watch them leave because they always do amazing things while they’re together. But I couldn’t help thinking, while I was dropping them off at the airport, that my kids are growing up like rich kids. It’s the last thing I expected after moving to rural Wisconsin.
The reason they are growing up like rich kids is not so much the money (he could have gone on a driving trip with Melissa and had the same advantages,) but because of my mentality that I trust him to be smart and interesting and to make a life from that. And I don’t trust school.
I think a lot about the difference between how rich people think about education and how everyone else thinks about education. So I was interested to read that rich people worry less about their kids getting into dangerous situations online than poor parents do.
I am convinced that, in general, parents who have self-confidence in their own ability to navigate the world display confidence in their children’s abilities as well. This seems like a good thing. Rich parents raise kids to think that being themselves is a great thing to be.
It also seems like a bad thing to assume your child is incapable. Jared Diamond’s book The World Until Yesterday shows that throughout human history families have given kids much more freedom and much more responsibility. Jennifer Senior has collected wide ranging data to show that the more we infantilize teens the more depressed they get. And it stunts their moral and emotional development.
It makes sense to me that people who feel secure financially would feel secure in the world, and would raise their kids to feel secure in the world.
So what can you do? Recognize that how many rich people raise their kids is insightful.
1. Rich parents don’t focus on well-roundedness. We are not in 16th century Italy. Today well roundedness is too easily accessible to everyone. Today specialization is what rich people want for their kids.
2. Rich parents don’t run their lives around school calendars. Rich families go to schools that allow families to put their own schedules first. Certainly it’s for selfish reasons, like film schedules or family vacation but the message this sends to kids is that family time is important for rich kids and secondary for kids who live their lives around a grammar school calendar.
3. Rich parents don’t do academics in the summer. No one ever succeeded in life by doing what everyone else does. Rich people realize that doing more coursework that everyone else is doing is not going to lead to success. Rich kids experience unusual, nonacademic settings in the summer.
4. Rich parents don’t focus on homework. It’s become clear that rich kids will do fine in life if they don’t do homework and poor kids won’t. (This is consistent with research that poor kids need to be taught to read in school and rich kids don’t.) So rich people don’t need to obsess about homework because rich kids will do fine in life without doing well in school.
What I’m trying to tell you is that it’s a poverty mentality to send your kids to school. The values of school are for people who start at a disadvantage. The US school system is about making things equal for everyone. If you start out on the better side of equal, why would you put your kids in a system designed to reduce their advantage?
When you block your kids from working and playing online, it’s out of fear. Fear that they will not learn enough, or that they will be corrupted, or that they will fall behind. Parents should have much bigger fears about telling their kid to do school instead of something else, even video games. In school the danger is that your the kid will become the same as all the others.
That seems much worse to me.
And don’t tell yourself that it costs a lot of money to raise your kid like a rich kid. It just means having a lot of faith in your kid. Yefet and Melissa didn’t actually need a lot of money for their trip. They spent the majority of their time hanging out together in Melissa’s apartment. And they both liked that just fine.
Affluent adults seldom consider the possibility that others may have to choose between accepting public assistance or dying childless. We prefer to believe that if everyone would act responsibly, they would all be able to support their children without government help. We are particularly keen on three forms of responsible behavior: delaying parenthood until you are in your twenties, getting married before you have children, and staying in school.
But even if everyone pursued these goals single-mindedly, a significant minority of the population still could not afford children without some kind of government help. When the Clinton administration unveiled its proposals for revamping Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), it said the plan "signals that people should not have children until they are ready to support them." Yet for many poor women, that time will never come. Sad to say, there are neither enough good jobs nor enough good husbands to provide every American woman with enough money to support a family.
Are we to assume that the losers in this lottery have no right to bear children at all? And, if not, are we really prepared to enforce this principle and all of its implications? These questions lie at the heart of the debate over welfare reform, yet neither liberals nor conservatives seem willing to face them squarely. Instead, they tell themselves fairy tales about how if everyone would just "play by the rules" they would all be able to support a family without government help.
Fairy Tale #1: If teen mothers simply held off parenthood until their twenties, they would have enough money to raise a family. TV commentators, magazine articles, and public service advertisements have claimed for years that teenage motherhood ("children having children") is a major cause of poverty. The administration apparently endorses this view, claiming that "welfare dependency could be significantly reduced if more young people delayed childbearing until both parents were ready to assume the responsibility of raising children." The fact sheet accompanying the administration's welfare proposals supports this claim with a dramatic statistic: 40 percent of current welfare recipients had their first child before their nineteenth birthday.
The administration is right when it claims that early childbearing is correlated with subsequent welfare receipt. But everyone knows, or ought to know, that a correlation of this kind is not sufficient to prove causation. Women who have babies as teenagers differ from those who wait in a multitude of other ways, many of which affect their economic prospects. To begin with, teen mothers tend to come from troubled homes. In an effort to separate the effects of family background from the age at which women became mothers, Arlene Geronimus from the University of Michigan and Sanders Korenman from the University of Minnesota compared sisters raised in the same family. They found that women who had had their first child while they were teenagers ended up only a little poorer than their sisters who had waited.
Family background aside, most teen mothers have also had trouble in school. Their grades and test scores have usually been below average, and they are more likely to have been in disciplinary trouble than women who delay motherhood. Many attend schools where below-average students are written off at an early age. Because of these problems, many teenage mothers quit school even before they become pregnant. When a teenager comes from a troubled family, has learned little in school, and has left school without graduating, she is unlikely to be economically self-sufficient no matter how long she delays motherhood.
Fairy Tale #2: If single mothers got married, they wouldn't need welfare. Those who see welfare dependency as a byproduct of irresponsibility argue that even dropouts with low test scores could stay off welfare if only they would marry before having children. Once again the correlation is clear. Women who have a child out of wedlock are at least three times as likely to need welfare as women who have their children while married. But that does not mean two-thirds of unwed welfare recipients could have made themselves self-sufficient by marrying the man who fathered their children.
If a would-be mother wants to stay off welfare, she has to find a husband who can pull his weight economically. Although the federal poverty threshold for a married couple with two children is currently about $15,000, a two-parent family in which both adults work and pay for child care needs at least $20,000 a year (and probably closer to $25,000) to cover its basic needs. (This estimate is based on studies of family budgets in four big cities, which we discuss in more detail later.) If family income falls below that level, the mother is usually better off on welfare, where she gets both Medicaid and food stamps and has no husband to support, no child care bills, and no work-related expenses. In families where both parents work, the man usually earns about 60 percent of the income. Thus, for marriage to make a mother better off than she would be on welfare, her husband must usually earn at least $12,000 a year. There are not enough men (or jobs) like that to go around.
In 1989, just before the recent recession, there were 22 million American women between the ages of 25 and 34. About 20 million of these women either had a child or wanted one. Fewer than 16 million men of the same age had annual incomes above $12,000. Some of these men were gay or reluctant to marry for other reasons. Others were philanderers, wife beaters, substance abusers, or child molesters. By traditional American standards the number of acceptable husbands was probably no more than two-thirds the number of women who wanted children.
Marrying a man with an unstable work history or low wages is not a good formula for avoiding welfare. These days more than half the women who marry such a man can expect their marriage to end in divorce; and when that happens their ex-husbands are unlikely to be either willing or able to pay much child support.
Fairy Tale #3: If teen mothers finished high school before having kids, they could get good jobs. Recognizing that marriage is no guarantee of economic self-sufficiency, American women have been staying in school longer and acquiring more specialized occupational skills than they did a generation ago. Nonetheless, only a minority can support children on their earnings alone. In 1989, a single working mother with two children needed about $15,000 worth of goods and services to make ends meet. Less than half the 25- to 34-year-old women who worked in 1989 earned that much.
The nature of this problem becomes clearer if we look at the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which began following a representative sample of 14- to 21-year-olds in 1979. At the beginning of the study, participants were given the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), which measures vocabulary, reading comprehension, computational skills, and ability to reason quantitatively. When Gary Burtless looked at 25-year-old women who were getting AFDC, he found that 72 percent of them had scored in the bottom quarter of their age group on the AFQT. Half were also high school dropouts.
While high school dropouts with low test scores often found some kind of work, their wages averaged only $5.50 to $6.00 an hour (in 1991 dollars). Nor did their earnings rise as they accumulated more labor market experience. After adjusting for inflation, Burtless found that these women earned only 25 cents an hour more when they were 29 years old than when they were 21. Nor does earning a high school equivalency certificate (technically known as a Certificate of General Educational Development, or simply a "GED") seem to increase their earnings. Recent research shows that high school dropouts with a GED earn no more than those who lack one. Nor does the short-term job training that most states now offer welfare recipients boost their hourly wages--though it does help them find work, so the money is not wasted.
Women with low test scores who finish high school on schedule do earn $1 to $1.25 an hour more than those who drop out. But that does not mean today's dropouts would earn an extra $1.25 if they stayed in school. Much would depend on what they did with their time while they were in school. Adolescents are desperate for respect. Those who are not good at schoolwork usually find that the easiest way to maintain their self-respect, at least in the short run, is not to work hard but to define school as "irrelevant" and find friends who do the same. If a teenage girl does no schoolwork, it is hard to see how keeping her enrolled will make her more valuable to her future employers. Having a diploma may help her get a job that someone else would otherwise get, but if everyone stays in school this "sheepskin effect" will disappear. Keeping everyone in school for 12 years will only boost wages if it makes the former dropouts more productive, and productivity is unlikely to rise unless students are learning something.
How Much Money is Enough?
If a mother of two had worked 40 hours a week and earned $6 an hour in 1991, her income would have been just above the federal poverty line. Since millions of American families reported incomes below the poverty line, one might think that $6 an hour should be enough to support a family. In reality, however, that was seldom the case.
For the past few years Laura Lein and one of the coauthors of this article (Edin) have been interviewing poor single mothers in the Boston, Chicago, San Antonio, and Charleston (South Carolina) areas, asking them about their household budgets. Welfare mothers typically reported getting $565 a month from AFDC and food stamps. If we treat food stamps as cash, that puts their official income at 65 percent of the poverty line. But not one of the 214 welfare mothers Lein and Edin interviewed was living on her official income alone. All of them had additional income from unreported work, under-the-table payments from the fathers of their children, or gifts from boyfriends and relatives. This income, which averaged $311 a month, brought the typical welfare mother's budget to the poverty line. If we add in the value of what Medicaid spent on her family's health care, the figure rises to around 130 percent of the poverty line. If we include the value of means-tested housing subsidies, the figure is even higher. Yet almost all these mothers were struggling to make ends meet. Many were doubled up in someone else's home, getting by without a telephone, or going hungry at the end of the month.
The 165 working mothers whom Lein and Edin interviewed spent even more than welfare mothers, and they too were unable to live on their earnings alone. In addition to paying an average of $75 a month to get to work and about the same amount for Social Security, most also had to pay their own medical bills, since their employers seldom provided health insurance. Working mothers' actual outlays for doctors and medicine were relatively modest, because those with high medical bills almost always stayed on AFDC. But if all single mothers worked, their medical care would cost far more. According to some HMOs, it would cost around $300 a month to provide health care for the average AFDC family, which is roughly what Medicaid now spends for those without any certified disability.
The same logic applies to child care. Single mothers who earn $5 or $6 an hour cannot afford to pay market rates for child care. At present, therefore, those who cannot persuade a relative to watch their children or find subsidized child care seldom work. But if we want all single mothers to become economically self-sufficient, we have to assume that they will mostly pay market rates. Lein and Edin found many welfare mothers who wanted to work, but few who thought they could get free child care from a relative. That was one of the main differences between welfare recipients and single mothers in low-wage jobs, many of whom got either free or very cheap child care from their kin.
On Chicago's South Side, where child care is cheaper than in Boston but more expensive than in Charleston or San Antonio, day care centers typically charge $270 a month to watch a preschool child. Poor mothers would probably select centers charging less than the average, but licensed providers almost always charge at least $200 a month. After-school care for older children is only a little cheaper than all-day care for preschoolers. A welfare recipient who has two children under the age of ten, no relatives willing to watch them, and no subsidized care, must therefore budget at least $350 a month and often more.
These estimates suggest that if we want welfare mothers to pay their own way, and if they have the usual run of health problems, they will need another $800 a month on top of what they now spend to balance their budgets. That would bring the typical working mother's budget to $1,800 a month in today's money. Lein and Edin found that single working mothers generated close to $300 a month from absent fathers, boyfriends, and family members. Thus, if their needs were comparable to those of welfare mothers, they would have to earn $1,500 a month to get by without government help. If they earned less, as most do, they would need subsidized child care, medical care, or housing, food stamps, or cash from the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Most Americans find all this hard to accept. Most of us see "dependence" as an inherently pathological condition. We badly want to live in a society where all people can "stand on their own two feet." Nonetheless, most of us admit that some cannot achieve this ideal. That is why we have disability benefits for the physically disabled, the mentally ill, and the mentally retarded. Our problem is that we define "disability" very narrowly. Americans can qualify for benefits only if a panel of experts agrees that they cannot do any work whatsoever.
For every schizophrenic who is completely out of touch with reality, there are half a dozen other adults who have trouble getting along with a boss or coworkers and therefore don't hold any job for a long period. Likewise, for every victim of Down's syndrome who cannot write her name, there are half a dozen others who can read and write but have trouble figuring out what their boss would want them to do in any unfamiliar situation. Such people cannot handle a job that entails much discretion or responsibility; they are employable, but they will be the last hired and the first fired. When the labor market is tight and no one better is available, someone will usually give them work. But in today's economy they are unlikely to find steady work that pays enough to support a family. When these people have children, they constitute the "hard core" of the welfare population. Many get off welfare, but they mostly return again. This is the group that will be hit hardest by a two-year time limit.
As long as America remains committed to competitive labor markets, open borders, and weak labor unions, most marginally employable adults will need some kind of public assistance if they have children. That leaves legislators with three choices: they can prevent marginally employable adults from having children, let them have children but give them no economic help, or let them have children and give them enough help to keep their children out of poverty.
Many welfare-bashers would like to prevent the poor from having children. They think most welfare recipients are irresponsible or incompetent parents living in communities that breed lawlessness and promiscuity. Perhaps equally important, they think of welfare recipients as black idlers who live off the labor of industrious whites.
But those who would like to prevent the "underclass" from reproducing have never devised a plan for doing this that stands a chance of winning broad political support. The problem is not that the public is deeply commited to the principle that everyone should be able to have children. Rather, the problem is that we cannot predict in advance which children might eventually need welfare. Nearly half the children on welfare in any given month were born to parents who were married at the time of their birth, and most of these parents had enough money to scrape by while they were married. If we tried to prevent married couples from having children until we could be sure that they would not need AFDC even if they separated, we would have to regulate the most intimate behavior of millions of married people. Not even the far right wants that. The politics of such a regulatory process would, moreover, be made even more explosive by the fact that the regulators would be mostly white while their targets would be disproportionately black and brown.
As we have noted, the odds that a couple will eventually turn to welfare rise sharply if they conceive a child out of wedlock. But some unmarried parents marry before their child is born, and others can earn enough to stay off welfare even if they do not marry. If this country were China, we might require all unmarried couples to use Norplant until they got a certificate of economic self-sufficiency. But such a scheme would not receive much support here. The right prefers to pretend that unmarried couples do not have sex, while the left opposes any policy that treats the poor differently from the rich. Besides, such a scheme would probably run afoul of the Supreme Court, which still recognizes the basic right to reproductive privacy set forth in Griswold v. Connecticut.
Given these constraints, those who want the poor to have fewer children usually emphasize the importance of moral or cultural norms that discourage poor people from having children they cannot support. That is clearly President Clinton's stance. But while it may be possible to get the poor to delay childbearing for a few years by making the economic or social rewards larger, we find it hard to imagine that many poor women would voluntarily go to their grave childless.
Almost all humans enjoy sex. Most women (and many men) also find infants extraordinarily appealing. Social engineers who seek to promote childlessness must therefore offer women an attractive alternative, such as becoming the bride of Christ or the head of a Fortune 500 corporation. Neither the Clinton administration nor the Republican party has anything of this kind to offer. A lifetime of minimum-wage work is certainly not likely to do the trick.
Even women who want babies may, of course, decide not to have them if the economic consequences are sufficiently grim. That is why legislators who want to discourage unwed motherhood try to cut AFDC benefits. No one is quite sure whether cutting AFDC works, however. Statistical analysis usually shows that when other things are more or less equal, states with low AFDC benefits have somewhat fewer single-parent families than states with high benefits, but the difference is seldom large and in some analyses it vanishes altogether. This pattern suggests that the proportion of single-parent families might have risen even faster over the past generation if legislators had not let AFDC benefits lag behind inflation after 1975. It does not suggest that welfare played a major role in the spread of single motherhood.
Nonetheless, some conservatives, such as Charles Murray, think that eliminating AFDC would help curb the trend toward single-parent families. To test this theory, it is useful to look at Mississippi, which has never offered more than token benefits and currently gives a single mother with one child only $96 a month. Despite such tight-fistedness, Mississippi's children are more likely to grow up in single-parent families than those in any other state. That is partly because Mississippi children are very poor and disproportionately black. But if limiting AFDC to $96 a month does so little to deter single parenthood, it is hard to see how eliminating AFDC entirely would do much more.
Murray's answer is that Mississippi also gives single mothers food stamps and Medicaid, which are worth far more than $96 a month. He wants to eliminate these programs as well. But what would this mean in practice? Would there still be hospitals and doctors that gave the poor free care, as there were before Medicaid was established? Or would doctors simply refuse to treat sick people who are poor? Hardly anyone favors the latter solution. But if the poor could still get medical care, why should changing the way we finance it deter poor women from having children? Eliminating food stamps poses similar problems. If we replaced food stamps with soup kitchens and food pantries, we would probably not deter many poor people from having babies. If eliminating food stamps meant that a lot of poor children went hungry, the electorate would vote in liberals who promised to bring food stamps back again.
Mississippi's experience suggests that we would need truly draconian sanctions to make a substantial dent in the number of adults who have children they cannot support. That leaves legislators with only two real choices. They can emulate Mississippi and offer poor parents minimal support--food and medical care but little else--or they can try to make sure that poor families' other basic needs are also met.
Most liberals prefer the generous approach, arguing that material deprivation does poor children permanent harm. We share this prejudice, but we have not been able to find much solid evidence that poverty per se harms children over the long run. We have not found any careful study of whether children who spend time on welfare do significantly better when they live in generous states. Many social scientists have shown that poor children learn less in school, leave school younger, commit more violent crimes, get worse jobs, and have more babies out of wedlock than affluent children. But once again mere correlation is not sufficient to demonstrate causation.
Adults are usually poor because no employer values their services. If parents lack the skills that employers value, they are not likely to be good at helping their children acquire these skills. So when we find that poor children do badly in school, we have to ask whether this is because their parents do not feed them properly or because their parents cannot help them much with schoolwork. Likewise, when we find that poor children have more than their share of disciplinary problems at school, we have to ask whether this is because they are snubbed for not having the right sneakers or because their parents have always dealt with their misbehavior by yelling or slapping instead of explaining. At present, we do not have good answers to such questions.
Where does this leave us? Common sense suggests that generous government support for single parents is likely to have two offsetting effects on children. First, it is likely to help children in single-parent families. Second, it is likely to increase the proportion of children who grow up in such families, which is likely to be a bad thing. Unfortunately, neither common sense nor social science can currently tell us how large either of these effects is. That makes it impossible to say whether the net impact of generous support is positive or negative.
In the absence of persuasive evidence, both politicians and ordinary citizens rely on ideology to tell them what the facts are. Conservatives hate unwed motherhood more than they hate poverty, so they tell one another that the next generation of children would be better off if we made AFDC even less generous than it now is. Liberals hate poverty more than unwed motherhood, so they insist that the next generation would be better off if we gave single mothers more help.
Clinton's welfare proposals try to appease both camps. He wants to make most welfare recipients work after two years, which appeals to conservatives who think such a requirement would deter unmarried women from having babies. But Clinton also wants to ensure that single mothers who work end up better off than they now are on AFDC, which appeals to most liberals. Overall, this strategy probably made political sense at the time Clinton formulated it. Indeed, we advocated this general approach in the first issue of this journal ("The Real Welfare Problem," No. 1, Spring 1990). But the details of the president's proposals are no longer as important as the political climate in which Congress will rewrite them. That climate has obviously moved far to Clinton's right. Over the next few months conservatives will try to strengthen the proposed work requirement, and they will probably succeed. They will also try to curtail benefits for working mothers. They may well produce a bill that not only makes all single mothers work after two years but makes them worse off in a low-wage job than on welfare.
The table on page 50, "Will Work Pay?", shows what might happen to a welfare mother's disposable income given several different scenarios. The income and expenditure estimates are for Chicago, where AFDC benefits are close to the national average, and describe a mother with one preschool child and one school-age child. Since we have no way of knowing how many Chicago welfare mothers would be able to get free child care from relatives or how many would find subsidized day care, we include separate estimates for each possibility. We assume that children are in a licensed program but that former welfare mothers, being poor, will choose a program costing considerably less than the citywide average.
Our first scenario assumes that Congress passes no new health care legislation but that both children were born after 1983. That means both children still get Medicaid even if their mother leaves AFDC, so long as her income does not exceed the federal poverty line. In this scenario the entire family gets free health care if the mother stays on AFDC, the children get free health care if she takes a minimum-wage job, and no one gets free care if she earns $6 an hour. We assume that the mother's medical expenses are equal to what Medicaid now spends on the average AFDC recipient who is not disabled. This may be a bit misleading. Most working mothers will spend less than the average in most years. Every so often they will have a serious problem that costs a lot. If they have no insurance, Chicago mothers with serious problem will usually be treated at Cook County Hospital and may never pay the bill. In many cases, moreover, they will lose their job, making them eligible for Medicaid.
Our assumptions suggest that if a welfare mother can get free child care, taking a minimum-wage job will raise her income by about 20 percent, from $12,355 to $14,847. If she has to pay market rates for child care, she will have about 20 percent less money in either a minimum-wage job or a $6 an hour job than she has on welfare. The conclusion seems clear: if we do nothing to change our present system of health care financing, a single mother with two children has no economic incentive to take a low-wage job unless she can obtain child care. If she has only one child, she will do about as well working as on welfare.
The next two scenarios follow the Clinton administration's script. All low-income mothers get free health care. If they also manage to find free child care, they are much better off economically when they take a full time job than they were on AFDC. But the administration is unwilling to make any political enemies in order to ensure that poor mothers receive free child care. As a result, its proposal does not include enough new federal spending to reach this goal. Our fourth scenario shows that those who have to pay for child care and have only a minimum-wage job will end up a little worse off than they are now. Those who earn $6 an hour will, however, be a little better off. Those with only one child will also be a little better off.
One also can envisage proposals that fall between these extremes. Suppose, for example, that all children in families with incomes below 150 percent of the poverty line get Medicaid. Working adults can all buy coverage through their employer, but they must bear the entire cost themselves. For women who take minimum-wage jobs, this scenario looks no different from the status quo: Their net income rises about 20 percent if they can get free child care and falls about 20 percent if they have to pay market rates. For women who take a job paying $6 an hour, however, this scenario looks considerably better than the status quo, because their children now receive Medicaid. It is important to recognize, however, that any health care reform that forces low-wage workers to buy their own insurance may make them worse off, since it will force them to pay a lot of bills that currently go uncollected.
It is also important to ask what will happen to women who cannot find a job after two years on AFDC. Under the administration's plan they will have to work in the JOBS program, which will offer minimum-wage work. Participants will receive free child care and Medicaid, but unlike those who work in the private sector they will not be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). They will also find it harder to do off-the-books work, since they cannot be two places at once. JOBS participants will therefore end up somewhat worse off than AFDC recipients now are. If Newt Gingrich has his way, JOBS itself may be time limited, or even eliminated.
For the least-employable welfare recipients, and for those whose child care options are unsually expensive or bad for the children, the human cost of these changes is likely to be substantial. First, more children are likely to be left alone during the day, increasing the odds that they will busy themselves with activities that are dangerous, illegal, or both. Second, more women will be driven into the underground economy, selling sex or drugs to make ends meet. Third, more women will live with men who help pay the bills but who also abuse them or their children.
Even before the elections it looked as if Congress might well pass a welfare reform bill so punitive that no compassionate person could support it. Now that looks even more likely. If Clinton were a more determined advocate for the poor, he might veto such legislation. But Clinton won conservative votes in 1992 by talking about "two years and off." That kind of talk helped create today's political climate, in which gradual and humane reforms are widely seen as fiddling while Rome burns. If Clinton is to run again, he will need a few victories over the next two years. The odds that he will veto any welfare proposal that reaches his desk therefore seem low. The last best hope for unskilled single mothers is therefore likely to be the Senate, where a liberal minority could use the threat of a filibuster to bargain for something approximating the administration's proposal. But welfare mothers have become so unpopular that Senate liberals may no longer be willing to defend their interests.
No matter what Congress does, single motherhood is not going to vanish. At most, it will become slightly less common. That fact poses a challenge for liberals as well as conservatives. Liberals need a new way of talking about single parents. Our rhetoric must recognize that children usually do better when they grow up with both their biological parents, but it must also be realistic about the reasons why so many parents fail to achieve this goal. We need to admit that single parenthood is a problem, but without encouraging the kind of punitive moralism that Americans find so seductive. On this score Clinton gets very low marks.
The way we talk about staying in school might provide a useful model for how we ought to talk about getting--and staying--married. Every American knows that attending college raises young people's chances of being able to support a family, just as getting married does. Children whose parents have not attended college do worse in school, get into more trouble with the law, and become less productive adults than children whose parents graduate from college, just as children raised in single-parent families do. Knowing all this, most adults urge children to finish high school and attend college. We also use public funds to subsidize such behavior. But when young people do not attend college, we do not tell them that they are immoral or irresponsible.
Nor does the president tell young people who have not attended college that they should not have children. Quite the contrary. When he was running for president Bill Clinton recognized that most Americans who had not attended college faced serious economic problems, and he talked about using public money to help solve these problems. His agenda included universal health care, expanding the EITC, more job training, and more subsidized child care. Only the EITC expansion passed. But subsidies for job training, child care, and health care are still generally accepted as legitimate devices for helping working Americans who are in economic difficulty.
The Clinton administration's commitment to these programs suggests that when it claims people should not have children they cannot support, it is looking for votes rather than trying to help the public think through a difficult political and moral problem. The administration knows that millions of Americans could not support their children without some kind of government help. When it says that people should not have children they cannot support, it just means that they should not have children if they will need help from one specific government program, namely AFDC. What that really implies, at least to this administration, is that people should not have children unless they are willing and able to take partial responsibility for supporting their children by working.
Combining single parenthood with a job is always hard. If a mother has limited skills and has trouble finding or keeping a job, this ideal will sometimes be unworkable. That fact does not discredit the ideal. It may well be important for every child to grow up in a family with at least one working adult. But we should recognize that some single parents may not be able to manage that much.
We also need to recognize that many conservatives have very different priorities. They think that women should only have children if they get married first. These conservatives might be willing to accept AFDC in roughly its present form if eligibility were limited to women whose marriages had broken down, and if benefits were tied to the family's previous earnings record, the way disability and unemployment benefits usually are. What they cannot stomach is the fact that women without husbands now have a right to bear children at public expense. Making government support for such women contingent on their finding a job misses the point. The truth is that many conservatives care more about "family values" than about the work ethic. They might be willing to help children born out of wedlock if they could do so without helping the parents, but they would rather not help anyone than subsidize illegitimacy. That is why so many conservatives are beginning to talk seriously about bringing back orphanages.
That position will probably win votes, but it raises a host of practical questions because there is no politically feasible way of limiting the right to reproduce. At present, America does not even bar adults from having a child when their behavior is so irresponsible that the courts have judged them unfit parents and have put their earlier children into foster care. A crack addict can lose her children, for example, but she cannot be deprived of her right to have more children.
If we are unwilling to bar crack addicts from having babies, it is hard to imagine that we will prevent people from having children simply because they cannot hold a steady job. Yet if we let the marginally employable have children, surely we have an obligation to meet these children's basic material needs.