It often takes decades for big social changes to reveal their most far-reaching consequences. Take welfare services for single mothers and their children. Who knew that efforts to solve one small problem in the 1930s would contribute to $100 billion a year in unintended costs 70 years later?
Let’s start with a little welfare history.
In the 1930s, when the Roosevelt administration was working to steer the nation out of the Great Depression, it faced the issue of how to help indigent widows with children, especially those whose husbands died in World War I.
Washington solved the problem with a tiny program called Aid to Dependent Children (ADC), which would give a monthly stipend to widows and their families.
But as the law was being processed, a question arose: What about women who hadn’t married but had children? Surely these unfortunate women were seduced by cads and then thrown aside with their bastards, I imagine the bureaucrats’ argument went.
Should we ignore them and consign those mothers to menial jobs and their children to workhouses instead of schools? Or should we write the rules to allow unwed mothers to get ADC?
The softhearted - some might say softheaded - bureaucrats’ choice, of course, was the latter.
For three decades, things looked fine. The bulk of ADC funding went, as planned, to poor widows and children.
But this changed in the 1960s. Widows were replaced by “expanding rolls of divorced, deserted and - more than ever over time - unmarried young mothers,” Hugh Helco wrote in the 2001 book “The New World of Welfare.”
The ADC program became a cornerstone of the Johnson administration’s “war on poverty.” Community activists explained to poor families that ADC, plus other new anti-poverty programs like food stamps and Medicaid, would keep the wolves from their doors.
But besides keeping wolves away, ADC ended up keeping men away.
Uncle Sam didn’t want to pay for a man’s family if he was there, so something called the “no man in the house” rule took shape.
As Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornel West wrote in their 1999 book, “The War Against Parents”: “[I]n the 1950s and 1960s, various states decided to crack down on unqualified ADC recipients; government agents staged announced midnight raids to make sure that mothers really had been deserted and that there was ‘no man in the house.’ If a man was found on the premises, the mother lost her ADC benefits.
“The effect of these raids,” they wrote, “was to further discourage fathers even more from living with their families.”
“I can finally get married,” one New Jersey welfare mother happily told me. For 20 years, she explained, she had been secretly living on and off with her boyfriend. But until her child turned 18 and “aged out” of the system, she didn’t feel safe enough financially to marry her guy.
The 1996 welfare-reform law took aim at the no-man issue by clarifying that needy couples with children could get welfare, although one parent would have to work.
But, again, what are the unforeseen consequences of these two well-intended social policies of giving checks to single mothers while insisting that men be excluded from their households?
On June 18, the National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) offered an answer: $100 billion a year in public spending to handle the fallout of “father absence.”
This figure addresses the costs of only health care, welfare, child-support enforcement and the Earned Income Tax Credit, wrote authors of the NFI study, sociologist Chris Einolf and Steven L. Nock, the late, much beloved researcher. Criminal justice, education and mental health costs weren’t included.
It seems the unintended consequences are dwarfing the intended consequences. There has got to be a better way.
Cheryl Wetzstein’s column, On the Family, appears Tuesdays and Sundays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.