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The Eye of the Beholder:
Welfare Facts and Fiction
Frank Furstenberg, Jr., Sociology

Frank Furstenberg photoThe debate that swirled around welfare reform assumed that the system in place was working very badly.  That's why it needed to be fixed.  Sociologist Frank Furstenberg doesn't see welfare quite that way.  In fact, he views the whole debate as an example of how public opinion and perception can clash with evidence gathered by the social sciences.  

"It was widely perceived that welfare was a kind of honeypot that attracted the woebegone and sharpies looking for an easy life. It's pretty clear that was not the case. Welfare was not an attractive way of life. The most dysfunctional people probably used it that way, but the people who became chronically dependent were not a large proportion of recipients. Even some who used it as an opportunity to raise their children eventually headed back into the labor force."

There were certainly problems with the system. As Furstenberg points out, it didn't ease the transition back into the labor force. It didn't provide good incentives for working; if anything, it discouraged work. Still, most people didn't stay on welfare, perhaps because they couldn't live on it without supplementary sources of income. Yet the stereotypical picture of the lazy welfare recipient living in near - luxury at taxpayers' expense - and rearing children to do the same - has persisted in the public mind. In fact, it's grown more negative as it focuses on the teenage, unmarried welfare mother. Distorted views about welfare recipients continue to be shared and discussed, "despite the fact that social science evidence suggests that the system was working tolerably well."

If welfare was not badly broken, Congress went ahead and "fixed" it anyway, setting a five-year maximum lifetime limit on benefits and stringent work requirements for recipients. States are required to have 25 percent of their recipients working next year and 50 percent by 2002. Other changes will reduce benefits for immigrants, childless nonworkers, and low-income disabled children. What will be the effects of these reforms on poor families? Furstenberg's best guess is that "we're going to make matters worse rather than better."

Conceivably, things might eventually get better because they get visibly and undeniably bad first. "It's possible that the Welfare Reform Bill will create such vast problems in providing employment, and so much pressure to make modifications and create job incentives or jobs, that the availability of work at the bottom of the economic scale will expand and allow a living wage to occur." He admits that public opinion probably won't change any time soon. "We may have to play out the tough and mean-minded approach that we're taking toward the disadvantaged. But at some time in the future there will be a shift back toward a more benign and progressive view."

Even if we were to create or find decent jobs for most welfare recipients, Furstenberg says, we must realize that some portion of the current welfare population is really not employable. "These are the mildly to moderately disabled who have problems of substance abuse, mental health, or moderate retardation. They can't compete for jobs in the private sector or hold jobs in the public sector. Without sheltered workshops, these people will become the full charges of their families or live on the streets. Both are expensive ways of managing the previously chronic welfare population."

For those who can work, tighter welfare restrictions are often described as a boon, providing incentives to stop undesirable behavior and seek paid employment. The state of New Jersey, for example, under Governor Florio began to limit welfare benefits to unmarried women who had additional children. At least one report claims that this policy has led to a dramatic decrease in illegitimate births in New Jersey. Furstenberg disputes this finding, however. "The change began to occur too soon to be linked to the onset of the welfare program. I've seen no convincing evidence yet that an effect has occurred, and it's not true that it's perfectly obvious that the program had the intended effects.

"It's a complicated piece of demographic analysis - to identify all the relevant factors and say why these rates change. There's also a general confusion between the proportion of births out of wedlock and the rate of births. The proportion can change because marital fertility declines - even if the rate doesn't. We know that most changes in recent years have to do with the decline in marriage, not with the increase in nonmarital childbearing. Marriage is occurring later and fertility within marriage is delayed. That has a large economic component to it. It's not that people are never marrying; they are postponing marriage in hopes of making it more secure. That exposes them to the risk of nonmarital childbearing unless they remain sexually abstinent. As you tighten the restrictions on abortion, you also run the risk of increasing nonmarital childbearing."

Furstenberg believes that too often people fasten on small pieces of the big picture to demonstrate an ideological point of view rather than trying to understand what's really happening and why. "What we've done in welfare policy has not been based on thoughtful examination of evidence but on a kind of rush to judgment, trying to gain political advantage. I'm afraid that the media and the political opinion makers are in an unholy alliance that ill serves the public. The simple and vivid sell newspapers and gain votes." Countering the simple and vivid with public discussions that are calm and complex is a new task for many academics and one they're not very comfortable with. Yet in Furstenberg's view, it is vital. Otherwise, bad information will keep driving good information out of the marketplace of ideas. "Many social scientists are committed to understanding things - and leaving it to others to act upon what we've learned. We're going to have to rethink that position in view of what happens to the evidence we're collecting."

Frank F. Furstenberg, Jr. is the Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology and has published widely on the contemporary American family, including such topics as teenage childbearing and the effects of divorce. Divided Families: What Happens to Children When Parents Part, written with Andrew J. Cherlin, came out in a paperback edition in 1994.

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