- Perhaps the most worrying implication of this new welfare will be its impact on single-parent families. Tweet This
- These new federal payments will encourage long-term dependency, reduce employment, and hurt families. Tweet This
- Replacing state-run programs with a federal payment strips the human connection from our social services. Tweet This
When I entered the policy world in the middle of the 1990s, I wanted to reduce poverty, encourage independence, and expand opportunity. And for more than 20 years, working in the social services departments of New York State and New York City, I helped implement reforms to achieve those goals. In so doing, we increased employment, reduced child poverty, and improved the lives of millions of New Yorkers.
We achieved these successes by establishing the expectation that recipients of government aid needed to seek employment, financial independence, and a path to self-sufficiency. And if they did, we would help with government-provided benefits that rewarded their efforts.
The successes of these welfare reforms are widely recognized. In the years after welfare reform, New York City’s cash welfare caseload dropped by almost 1 million recipients, labor force participation among never married mothers (the group most likely to be in poverty) rose by more than 20 percentage points, and child poverty was nearly cut in half. Similar trends occurred all across the country. Nevertheless, everyone acknowledges we still have work to do—myself included.
Unfortunately, critics of this work-plus-supports approach, as well as some who support the approach but think we can do better, are now poised to turn their ideas into law. While they acknowledge that poverty has declined, they argue that we could do better if we significantly altered what has worked in the past.
Rather than focusing on work expectations and earnings, they now propose a universal federal payment, or child allowance, that would replace existing state- and locally-based programs. This payment would come in the form of monthly checks from Washington to every household with children, regardless of whether the adults in the household work, look for work, or participate in training or education. Just this past week, legislation implementing these new monthly payments from Washington passed the Senate on a party-line vote, making it all but certain that this new approach will become law at least for one year.
These proponents of the “new welfare” claim that a direct federal payment would reduce hassle and eliminate wasteful spending from the state and local programs that stress employment and independence. But while these payments could reduce the need for a relatively small amount of overhead, the reality is that they would also completely destroy the expectations surrounding work, family life, and personal responsibility that have been so instrumental to our success. My view is that these new federal payments will encourage long-term dependency, reduce employment, and hurt families.
Perhaps the most worrying implication of this new welfare will be its impact on single-parent families. One of the critical reasons for our success in fighting child poverty over the last three decades has been our emphasis on nurturing strong families. But by sending out regular checks without regard to what is really going on with these families, the new proposals would undermine the structures in our safety net that have promoted greater parental involvement, increased work and training, and stronger parenting by both parents.
By sending out regular checks without regard to what is really going on with these families, the new proposals would undermine the structures in our safety net that have promoted greater parental involvement, increased work and training, and stronger parenting by both parents.
An old complaint among conservatives about the welfare system created in the 1960s was that it replaced the absent parent in most single-parent homes. In an effort to fix this problem, we required that any single parent seeking public assistance must also seek support from the absent parent. This led to billions of dollars in child support payments being collected nationwide and provided to low-income families annually through these efforts. In the city of New York alone, for example, total annual collections of child support reached nearly $800 million as recently as 2017.
This emphasis on parental involvement also improved child well-being and development through the increased participation and involvement of non-resident parents, often fathers, in the lives of their children. These interactions cause children to have better academic performance and lead to more intact families.
Most importantly, it has reinforced the societal expectation that children should receive both financial and emotional support from both parents. The new welfare, which doesn’t impose these requirements, would upend this expectation.
I am sorry to say that the supporters of this new federal welfare program seem to hold a naive view of many low-income and single-parent households that just doesn't reflect reality. Unfortunately, too many of these homes are plagued by the difficult and often generational challenges of substance abuse, poor school performance, criminal justice involvement, absent parents, poor parenting, and lack of work—none of which can be fixed simply by sending more money.
Anti-government libertarians and conservatives don’t want to believe it, and progressives seem to have forgotten, but these at-risk families benefit from the services provided by the existing safety net—even when it comes across as hassle. As the commissioner of social services in New York City, I had the pleasure of working with the city’s social service workers, many of whom came from majority-minority, low-income communities. They believed, perhaps even more strongly than I did, that those providing government aid needed to be telling struggling young parents that they should find employment, get their children into appropriate child care, and address other difficult issues they were facing.
That connection with a social worker, either through government or a non-profit or faith-based institution, often leads to the successful diagnosis of important issues in the household. Though a new Washington-directed child allowance may provide money, it will never be able to see these issues or do much about them.
Finally, this all speaks to a fundamental truth about the American safety net: our welfare programs work better at the local level. Replacing state-run programs with a federal payment strips the human connection from our social services. While critics see case workers as pesky bureaucrats, the reality is that their work engages with individuals and encourages them to seek employment, support their families, and improve their lives. Money alone won’t do that and may make it harder for struggling parents to face up to the challenges before them.
Robert Doar is the president of the American Enterprise Institute. From 2007 to 2013 he was commissioner of social services in New York City.