Last summer, conservatives were celebrating 10 years of welfare reform. Now we learn out-of-wedlock births are at a record high and married couples comprise less than half the nation’s households.
And those out-of-wedlock births no longer proceed from just low-income teenagers. Inspired by books like Peggy Drexler’s “Raising Boys Without Men,” middle-class, middle-aged women are now bearing many of the fatherless children. This number does not even include the children of divorce, which almost doubles the 1.5 million out-of-wedlock births.
This plague of fatherless children is driven not only by culture but also by federal programs that subsidize single-parent homes through quasi-welfare entitlements for the affluent that welfare reform did not address.
In fact, the welfare subsidy on single-mother homes was never really curtailed so much as it was shifted. Reformers largely replaced welfare with child support, on the reasonable principle that fathers, rather than taxpayers, should support their children. But a profound unintended consequence has been the transformation of welfare from public assistance into law enforcement.
Like any bureaucracy, this one found rationalizations to expand. During the 1980s and 1990s — with no explanation or public debate — enforcement machinery created for children in poverty was dramatically expanded to cover all child support cases, including those not receiving welfare.
This vastly expanded the program by bringing in millions of middle-class divorce cases. While it is almost impossible to collect from young inner-city fathers, divorced fathers have pockets to mine. Non-welfare cases — for which the system was never intended — now account for 83 percent of cases and 92 percent of the money collected.
By padding their roles with millions of middle-class parents, state governments found they could collect a windfall of federal incentive payments. Federal taxpayers now subsidize state government operations through child support. They also subsidize family dissolution, for every fatherless child is an additional source of revenue for state governments.
To collect these funds, states must channel not just delinquent payments but current payments through their criminal enforcement machinery, subjecting law-abiding parents to criminal measures. While officials claim their perennial “crackdowns” on “deadbeat dads” increase collections, the “increase” is achieved not by collecting arrearages of low-income fathers already in the system but simply by pulling in more middle-class fathers.
These fathers have not abandoned their children. Most were actively involved with them, and many clamor for more time with them. Yet for the state to collect its funding, fathers willing and able to care for their children must be designated as “absent.” Divorce courts are pressured to cut children off from their fathers to conform to the welfare model of “custodial” and “noncustodial.” The perverse incentives further criminalize fathers by impelling states to make child support levels as onerous as possible.
This also creates a windfall for middle-class divorcing women and an incentive to create more fatherless children. “This recent entitlement,” write economist Robert McNeely and legal scholar Cynthia McNeely, “… has led to the destruction of families by creating financial incentives to divorce [and] the prevention of families by creating financial incentives not to marry upon conceiving of a child.”
Beyond the expense of the subsidies are costs of diverting the criminal justice system from protecting society to criminalizing law-abiding parents and keeping them from their children. But the entitlement state must then devise additional programs — many times more expensive — to deal with the social costs of fatherless children.
“My agency spends $46 billion per year operating 65 different social programs,” says former Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Wade Horn. “The need for each is either created or exacerbated by the breakup of families and marriages.” Given the social ills attributed to fatherless homes — including crime, truancy and scholastic failure, substance abuse, unwed pregnancy and suicide — it is reasonable to see a huge proportion of domestic spending as among the costs.
These developments offer a preview of where our entire system of welfare taxation is headed: expropriating citizens to pay for destructive programs that create the need for more spending and more taxation. It cannot end but in criminalizing more and more of the population.
President of the American Coalition for Fathers and Children and assistant professor of government at Patrick Henry College, Purcellville, Va. The research on which this article is based is published by the Institute for Policy Innovation.