by David C. Reardon, Ph.D.
The push for welfare reform is drawing broad support from both liberals and conservatives. And as always, single mothers on welfare are drawing the most fire.
The outrage which drives this debate appears to be inspired more by harsh economic realities than high moral principles. Some, like Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, have even argued that “illegitimacy is the single most important social problem of our time…because it drives everything else.” The national deficit, crime, the spread of AIDS, decay of the schools, “everything” can purportedly be traced back to too many children among the unmarried poor.
Given this perspective, even those who otherwise deny the existence of any moral absolutes suddenly discover a moral voice when it comes to condemning the spread of poor children. For example, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala told Newsweek reporters that: “I don’t like to put this in moral terms, but I do believe that having children out-of-wedlock is wrong.” Similarly, the liberal Progressive Policy Institute of the Democratic Leadership Council has condemned the poor who “make babies they cannot support emotionally and financially” for behavior which is morally “wrong–not simply foolish or impractical.”
Cutting Off Welfare: Hopes and Errors
Among the most popular proposals for welfare reform is the idea of denying welfare support to unmarried women who bear children. Another proposal, called the “family cap,” would deny any additional child support payments to children born after a woman is already on welfare. Support for the “family cap” has even been offered by many pro-life leaders. Among these is the Family Research Council’s Jennifer Marshall. She argues that the family cap will reduce illegitimate pregnancies will thereby reduce the perceived “need” for abortion.
Similarly, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, an outspoken pro-life advocate who heads The Institute on Religion and Public Life, has also lent his support for such reforms on the grounds that current welfare programs may actually encourage single women to become pregnant: “Young girls are understandably attracted to the idea of becoming independent, being given an apartment and income of their own, and having a baby to love and be loved by.”
Marshall and Neuhaus are fully aware of the pro-life concern that loss of welfare support will increase the pressures on women to abort. In response to this concern, Marshall and Neuhaus pin their own pro-life hopes on economic calculus. If women know that there will be no dole, they argue, this will change their sexual behavior; abortion rates will not go up because pregnancy rates will go down.
Marshall and Neuhaus are almost certainly correct that pregnancy rates would drop. It is far less certain, however, that there will not also be a rise in abortion rates.
The probable rise in abortion rates would be due to two facts. First, many young women are simply inept at economic calculus, or close their eyes to it because they are motivated by feelings not foresight. Second, the calculus of some will prove wrong because of misjudged variables or changing circumstances.
Let us look at a sample of these young girls. Over here is one who has deliberately sought a pregnancy to break away from an unhappy home. Yonder is another who became pregnant hoping to force a commitment from the man of her desires. Here is one whose anticipated marriage was suddenly denied her because her lover was imprisoned or, worse, killed in a random shooting. Here is one who trusted her lover’s promise of marriage, and in the back of her mind she also trusted her parent’s assurances that they would always be there to help. But now her lover is angry (threatening to leave her and swearing never to pay a penny for the child he “didn’t want”) and the only help her parents are offering is the money for an abortion. Is such a woman guilty of bad economic calculus, or was she simply too trusting of others?
Some would say that the lack of foresight shown by these young women is proof of foolishness, and who would argue with this conclusion? But what are people, especially young people, if not foolish?
It is true that changing the economic equation will change some behavior; it will deter some foolishness. But it will not eliminate it. And in the cases where the foolishness still occurs, a young woman will find that there is no safety net, only abortion (which is yet another foolish choice) and the death of not just a dream, but of her wanted child.
Futures Trading In Lives
Even if these welfare reforms did not result in a rise in abortion rates, or were even accompanied by a drop, there is no moral victory if, for every 1.4 non-lives “saved,” we must sacrifice a real life which would otherwise have been born. What do I mean by this? First, a life that is never conceived (because a young girl was good at economic calculus) cannot be “saved.” It has never existed. Thus, any hoped-for drop in abortion rates would not be due to saving lives, but due to avoiding the creation of lives. On the other hand, the loss of economic support, or even its perceived absence, will certainly cause at least some young women to submit to the “practical necessity” of abortion when otherwise they would have carried their children to term.
If trading a life for a life is morally dubious, how much more condemnable is a policy which sacrifices lives already conceived for the “gain” of avoiding the creation of other lives? To give a more concrete example, let us assume that Anne and Brenda are both at risk of becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Without welfare reform, Anne would have an abortion and Brenda would not. But with a “family cap” the message of welfare reform somehow enters into Anne’s moral and economic calculus. She becomes convinced that she should make greater efforts to avoid pregnancy through either abstinence or by more conscientious use of an “effective” contraceptive. Anne never becomes pregnant, and the life she would have aborted is “saved” because it was never conceived.
Brenda, on the other hand, still becomes pregnant. Even though her boyfriend and parents want her to abort, she wants her child. But when she talks with the local (government funded) family planning counselor she quickly discovers the moral and economic messages implicit in our reformed welfare policy: society doesn’t want her baby, either. Indeed, she begins to see that she is being condemned for her “immoral” desire to bear and raise a child she cannot afford. Thus, her moral resolve is weakened. Her sense of priorities is challenged. She begins to doubt her self-worth, her ability to be a good mother, and her belief that somehow she and her baby will “get by.” In the end, the balance is tipped, and she is convinced that she must submit to the abortion not only for the good of everyone else, but even “for the good” of her child who is wanted by nobody but her.
The result: Anne avoids abortion by never becoming pregnant; Brenda submits to an abortion she would otherwise have refused. Welfare reform achieved its goal with Anne, but at the cost of someone else’s life, the child of Brenda.
Incidentally, because Brenda’s prior attitudes about abortion were more negative, she would be at higher risk of severe post-abortion sequelae. Indeed, as a general rule, we can expect that the women who will be most likely to feel “pushed” into abortion by “family caps” will also be the most at risk of undergoing psychological deterioration after an abortion.
More Than Numbers
Pro-lifers must not allow themselves to be fixated on statistical counts of abortion. Our task is to save individual lives, and this must be done without endangering the lives of others. There is no victory in reducing abortion rates if in doing so we are placing a new group of lives at risk.
Those who pin their hopes on economic forces to reduce pregnancies must realize that these same economic forces will also push women toward abortion when a pregnancy does occur, whether it occurs as a result of contraceptive failure, romantic foolishness, or simply bad economic calculus. Indeed, economic factors are one of the chief reasons why women feel forced to accept abortions as their “only choice.” This is especially true of middle class women, for whom the option of receiving welfare is loaded with feelings of public shame. Many of these middle class women choose abortion because then their shame will be a private one, if ultimately less bearable one. Since economic calculus has not preserved these middle class women from mistimed pregnancies and abortion, it is unlikely that it will succeed with lower income women.
Indeed, without the safety net of welfare, the economic pressure on low income women will be far more fierce than that on the middle classes. At least now the culture of the urban poor inclines them to accept charity so they can keep their children. Without this charity, which in our society is distributed by the welfare state, it will be far easier for Neo-Malthusians to push these women into unwanted abortions. These are exactly the “unwanted” children for whom Planned Parenthood insists that there is unmet “demand” for abortion. By removing the safety net, Neo-Malthusians will finally succeed in bringing maximum pressure to bear on, as Sanger called them, the “slum mothers” who are creating the “dead weight of human waste.”
A History of Fear
This aversion to the children of the poor has a long history in society. Perhaps the earliest recorded case is Pharaoh’s fear that “too many” children were being born among the Israelite slaves. The modern rationale for this view, however, is most easily traced to the dawn of the Industrial Age. It was then that Thomas Malthus battled utopian theorists with the argument that population growth would always outrun the food supply. From this premise it was only one small step to the conclusion that any effort to assist the poor in bearing and sustaining their children would ultimately only increase their poverty and their burden on society.
By the beginning of this century the economic prejudice against the poor had been expanded to include a “scientific” basis for the belief that the poor were genetically inferior. It was this genetic inferiority which purportedly doomed them to lives of mental inferiority, vice, criminality, and unrestrained breeding. This development contributed to the birth of Neo-Malthusianism, the utopian belief that the problems of poverty could be solved through eugenic birth control policies (a concept Malthus had actually opposed).
Among the leaders of the Neo-Malthusian cause was Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. Sanger’s efforts were focused on negative eugenics, suppressing the population of the “unfit” through segregation, sterilization, and contraception. Echoing Malthus, she condemned traditional forms of charity as “cruel sentimentalism,” to which she added her claim that the only true charity was in helping the poor to have fewer children.
Sanger’s philosophy has become deeply ingrained in our society, as evidenced by the fact that her Planned Parenthood receives more charitable contributions from individuals, corporations and government grants than any other non-profit organization in our history. Thus, it is no surprise that the debate over welfare continues to come back to the fear that welfare may be counterproductive because it enables the births of children which our society is otherwise trying to prevent.
The only significant difference in the issue of “too many” poor children today, versus in the past, is that Malthus and Sanger were chiefly concerned about suppressing the birth rate of poor married couples. Now, after having ravaged the traditional family and freed sex from marriage, we are left with debating the best ways to suppress the birth rate of unmarried women. Furthermore, by fanning the flames of concern over “sponging welfare mothers,” Neo-Malthusians hope to decrease public resistance to such goals as condoms in the schools and tax funded abortions, while simultaneously increasing the level of donations for Sanger’s charity to end all charities–population control of the “unfit.”
Remembering Basic Principles
This rather lengthy preliminary discussion has been offered to remind conservative and religious leaders of why they should be extremely circumspect of any welfare reform which could even remotely contribute to the agenda of the already powerful Neo-Malthusian lobby. Obviously welfare reform is needed to prevent the safety net of private and public aid from actually becoming a hindrance to the formation of families. But to eugenics-phobes such as myself, any idea which can even remotely benefit the Neo-Malthusian agenda should be immediately rejected as thought pollution from hell.
Before seeking a solution to the welfare dilemma, it is necessary to properly identify the problem. But before we have any hope of succeeding at even at this, we must first purge ourselves of any trace of the eugenicists’ mindset. This is done first and foremost by embracing the goodness of all human life, without regard to “quality” or quantity.
We must fix our gaze on the Judeo-Christian teaching that children are always a gift from God. No child is conceived by accident. Each has a part to play in God’s design. This providential purpose includes not only the child’s destiny, but those whom the child’s life touches. For parents, the conception of a child may be intended to lead them to greater generosity, responsibility, or to an understanding of the meaning of unconditional, sacrificial, painful, and burdensome love. (Even in the case of experimentation on in vitro human embryos, God allows these human lives to be conceived so that scientists, and those who fund them, can prove their depravity and thereby justify their final judgment.) No life is created without a purpose. It is our role to simply find and cooperate with that purpose.
From this perspective it is clear that the problem is not that children are being born by unwed women. These children are, by definition, valuable. Thus, even when considering public policy questions, believers should always applaud the arrival of every new life. (Praise God! Look at what He’s given the world this time!) We must remember this, even when we hear tales of a “welfare” mother with seven wild and dirty children. If the tale is true, God has not cursed the world seven times. He has blessed it seven times, for these are God’s children.
The problem is not children on welfare. The problem is that their mothers are unwed. More specifically, fathers are not being fathers, and husbands (at least according to their biological bond) are not being husbands. As many conservative critics have rightly argued, the real issue is that the present welfare system is destructive of families. It diminishes the financial responsibility of men for their children, and actually discourages marriage because being married decreases welfare payments. Present welfare policies have thereby increased the incidence of co-habitating pseudo-marriages which are more easily abandoned. It is not that single mothers on welfare prefer to be unmarried, or even to be on the dole. The problem is that the present system makes this the easiest–and perhaps only–way for them to have their families as long as fathers are allowed, much less encouraged, to run from their parental responsibilities.
Clearly then, the focus for welfare reform should be on fathers, not the mothers. For what is the welfare state, in these cases, except a surrogate provider?
Nurturing Children, Encouraging Parenthood
No Christian should question that there are cases when women legitimately need financial assistance to care for their children. There are important questions of whether and how much of this care should come from government resources, individual charity, and from the Church. But there should be no doubt about our moral obligation to render assistance. Indeed, care for the widow is one of the Bible’s most repeated commands for alms giving.
The death of the child’s father is but one example of a woman’s rightful claim to the support of the community. Incapacity, imprisonment, and abandonment are also legitimate claims. However, in the latter case of abandonment, the Christian society also has every right and duty to find the negligent father and to compel him to fulfill his responsibility as a provider through social rebuke, civil punishment, fines, seizure of his properties, and even forced labor.
These fathers are rejecting God’s gift of parenthood. They are rejecting this God-given opportunity to learn the lessons of responsibility, sacrifice, and unconditional love–lessons they clearly need to learn, as is evidenced by their absence. By compelling them to be husbands and fathers we would actually be serving both their own best interests and the interests of society.
James Q. Wilson, writing in Values and Public Policy, has convincingly argued that our goal should be to “increase the number of urban young men who marry and remain married” because marriage is most likely to reduce involvement in criminal activity, the risk of homicide, suicide, accidents and mental illness. In short, the responsibilities of being a husband and father is good for males. It is also good for families. The risk of infant mortality is lower for women with husbands, and there is also a widespread consensus that children are generally healthier, physically and emotionally, when raised with both their parents. Ergo, the individual, familial, and social advantages of “shotgun weddings” may substantially offset any romantic disadvantages.
Suggestions for Reform
With all of the above in mind, I would now propose my own recommendations for welfare reform, features of which have also been suggested by others. In overview, since economic factors do affect sexual behavior, these economic forces should be primarily directed at fathers who abandon their children to the care of the State. Furthermore, in order to motivate women to cooperate in holding their mates responsible for their children, the rewards of identifying a father should be greater than the rewards of having a welfare check.
More specifically, unwed mothers and their children should be guaranteed an adequate level of financial support whenever the father is not making support payments. The only qualification would be that the woman must identify the child’s father, which if disputed, can be confirmed by DNA testing. Once paternity is established, the father would be held responsible for paying support of no less than 150% of the normal public aid support which would be available if he were deceased.
If it is within the father’s means, or as his income increases with time, higher support payments would be required so that his children can be supported at a level commensurate to his own lifestyle. Furthermore, support from the father should be sufficient to allow the mother to be a full-time mother and stay at home with her pre-school child, if she wishes. After all, children should not be deprived of their mother, particularly during their critical formative years, simply (and especially) because their father is absent.
To ensure and record collections, support payments would be made through a government or privately licensed agency. Payments would be withheld only if the woman began to deny or obstruct the visitation rights of the father as defined by court order. After all, fathers have rights too.
Until the father’s contributions met the 100% level, public aid programs would cover the balance. (If the husband is dead, incapacitated, or imprisoned, the State would provide welfare payments at the 100% level indefinitely.) If the father is unable to make the 150% payment, he would be required to participate in a proportionate amount of workfare to make up the difference. Non-participation or substandard performance in the workfare program would be a misdemeanor resulting in thirty to sixty days of internment at a residential work camp. Going AWOL from the camp would carry even stiffer penalties and eventual incarceration in an even more unpleasant facility where there are ample opportunities for even more hard work.
There would be, however, one escape route from this obligation to provide child support equal to at least 150% of welfare support levels. If the couple is married and maintains a household with each other, the father would not be held liable to provide 150% of the standard. He would simply provide whatever he could, and the normal levels of public aid for the family would be available to them all. Workfare would not be required for the purpose of subsidizing welfare support for the couple’s children, though it might be required for other purposes. In this way, the formation and maintaining of family units would be encouraged rather than discouraged.
This proposed system acknowledges that economic forces can influence sexual behavior. It may even prove, what many already suspect, that the economic consequences of parenthood will be a far greater deterrent to sexual license for males than females. At the very least, this proposal would deter extramarital intercourse just as effectively as a ban on welfare support for unwed mothers.
Most importantly, this scheme would use economic forces to reduce the occurrence of unwed pregnancies without penalizing unwed mothers or their children. Notably, it does not even deter young women from trying to “trap” young men in marriage. Both the men and the women caught in such a trap should be tied down by the responsibilities of parenthood; it will help them both to grow up.
Finally, to safeguard women against being pressured into unwanted abortions by men who want to avoid child support payments, severe criminal penalties would need to be imposed against those who would coerce women into unwanted abortions. Abortion clinics should be required to screen women for evidence of coercion and report coercing boyfriends or husbands to the authorities. Since abortionists claim to favor reproductive freedom, they should be happy to help women in this way. If they are not happy to do so, which is likely, they should be held mutually liable for the criminal and civil penalties which should attached to coerced abortions.
Originally published in The Post-Abortion Review 3(2) Spring 1995. Copyright 1995 Elliot Institute