Cutting Illegitimacy Cuts Welfare


Washington. -- It was once called "bastardy." Then "illegitimacy." Then "out-of-wedlock birth." And now, frequently, wholly sanitized, "non-marital birth."

Whatever it's called, it is at the root of our social problems. And, according to a new census study, it is growing ominously.

Meanwhile, President Clinton's task force on welfare reform made its first public appearance. Alas, it went beyond mere sanitization, not mentioning the surge of out-of-wedlock births, even as that causes the current explosion of welfare.

Although there is tough-minded thinking now going on about welfare inside the Clinton task force, this public timidity does not augur well. As long as political America remains uncomfortable mentioning illegitimacy, we will continue to condone it. As long as we condone it, we will subsidize it. When we subsidize it, we cause it. By now, it's our fault.

The new census data are shock- ing, although not unexpected. In one decade, from 1982 to 1992, the rate of illegitimate births soared from 15.8 percent to 24.2 percent, an increase of more than half -- the largest increase ever. (And census data, which come from a survey, are lower than birth records.) For comparison, the illegitimacy rate was about 3 percent in 1950 and 4 percent in 1960.

The new levels are highest among African-Americans (rising from 49 percent to 67 percent) and Hispanics (16 percent to 27 percent). But it is a national problem. The illegitimacy rate grew most rapidly among whites (10 percent to 17 percent).

Remarkably, all this happened while fertility fell across the board for all races. This means the increase in illegitimacy comes from voluntary behavior. (If a woman can control the birth of a third child, she can usually control the birth of a first or second child.)

It is the growth in out-of-wedlock birth that is pushing up the welfare numbers. The Congressional Research Service reports that 71 percent of the new cases in the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, from 1987 to 1991, were headed by a never-married mother. (In earlier years welfare was generat by divorce, widowhood or marital separation.)

So why, in its first press conference, would President Clinton's task force choose not to mention any of this in 13 pages of briefing material? Was it just happenstance?

Was it happenstance that the task force hand-outs also did not mention Mr. Clinton's four magic campaign words, "two years and out," although that pledge validated his promise to "end welfare as we know it?" Was it happenstance that the task force did not even use the words "sanction" or "termination," even though these are the terms that point to tough-minded solutions?

(The task force's euphemism of choice: "time-limited transitional support system." Questioned, the briefers endorsed the two-year limit.)

It is not that the task force, or Mr. Clinton, doesn't know what is going on. The president recently met in private with task-force members. His charge was in tune with the theme that elected him. "Get the values right," he said. "If you get everything else right, and get the values wrong, it won't work."

Indeed, serious discussions are taking place inside the task force about values and behavior issues, of which illegitimacy is paramount. So why the reticence in public?

I cannot prove it, but I can divine it. The truth would cause an uproar among liberal Democrats, who would cry: "Blaming the victim!" Can a Democratic president really say that voluntary change in reproductive behavior is the principal agent driving welfare, and most of our other social problems, and that it could be reduced by a threat to end benefits?

Yet that is where the evidence takes us. More voluntary out-of-wedlock birth yields more dependency, more welfare, less parental control, which yields more crime, drugs, unemployment and poor education, which yields more voluntary out-of-wedlock birth, more dependency, and so on, cyclically, without end.

Circles, vicious or otherwise, can only be continued or cut. The way to cut this circle is to send a message that we will stop subsidizing voluntary illegitimacy.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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