While most of the experts were reporting on the success of welfare reform, I gathered a group of some of the best labor economists and policy analysts in the nation to look at what happened to young, less-educated men during the 1990s. What we found was pretty startling — and in the case of black men, appalling.
Though employment rose and both welfare and poverty declined among young, less-educated young women and their children, men made few gains. Among young, less-educated black men, employment actually fell. At the same time, they experienced rising incarceration rates at a time when crime rates overall fell. This evidence belies what most experts have believed for years: that a sustained period of economic growth would draw even the hardest to serve into the labor market. So, what should be done?
Welfare reform over the past 10 years has taught us two very important lessons: The first is optimism about what government can do, with the help of other sectors, to fix long-standing problems in our society. The second is responsibility as a theme that must be a prominent feature of whatever occurs.
As a result, policymakers have come to believe that government-funded programs can help disadvantaged people — if our pursuit of effective approaches is persistent and open-minded, and if such programs hold people responsible for their own futures.
And the basis for this responsibility is the concept of welfare-to-work, an objective that has come to be described as making welfare recipients self-sufficient. Many former recipients are anything but. They continue to rely on work supports in the form of earnings subsidies, childcare assistance, food stamps and medical insurance for mothers and children, at a cost of $50 billion annually.
In other words, we proclaimed the goal of self-sufficiency, but we have settled for far less. Congress was willing to provide generous supports because work is a basic requirement of citizenship, which has been an integral part of U.S. social welfare policy since the colonial period.
We must require the poor to meet basic, reasonable standards of citizenship and enable them to do so with reasonable supports. By responsible standards, I mean standards that are achievable given their current circumstances. By reasonable supports, I mean the types and amounts of help that take account of competing demands on domestic social spending and the ways in which we assist other vulnerable populations.
What are reasonable standards of citizenship for young black males? Should we require that they be self-sufficient? For those young black men with a high-school diploma or less, limited math and reading skills, a recent prison stay, perhaps because of a felony conviction, the goal of self-sufficiency is unrealistic. We should however, require them to work, as we do of all citizens, and if what they earn is too little to secure a decent standard of living, we can provide earnings subsidies, at levels comparable to the value of the EITC for custodial mothers. We should also require them to support their children, and in the 1996 welfare reform, Congress made substantial changes in the child support provisions to ensure that they do.
Unfortunately, the effort to enable low-income fathers to meet these basic requirements of citizenship was half-hearted, at best. States could use funds from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program to help welfare recipients or non-custodial parents of children on welfare, mostly fathers who could not meet their child support obligations. However, few states took the latter option to help out those fathers.
President Clinton included non-custodial parents in the welfare-to-work program he created in his 1997 budget. This program provided grants to states to operate job placement, job training and other support services. Nevertheless, eligibility requirements for that program were drawn so tightly that most states had difficulty signing up enough fathers. Later, the eligibility rules were relaxed, but only a small number of fathers were served. Because welfare reform and the booming economy had so depleted the welfare rolls by the time President Bush took office, he eliminated this program in his first budget.
What has occurred in this climate, where fathers face strict requirements to support their children but receive only half-hearted supports? First, the proportion of non-marital children for whom a legal father has been identified has skyrocketed. This is an important pre-requisite to establishing a legal obligation for the support of such children. And some research shows that the racial gap in the proportion of children whose fathers have such legal obligations has disappeared.
However, black children remain less likely to receive the child support payments they are due, because their fathers are less likely than white, unmarried fathers to have stable employment. Moreover, the amounts of child support that fathers are obligated to pay is often at such high levels, that it lowers the compliance rates for many low-income men. The resulting arrears have become a crippling burden on our child-support enforcement system.
In fact, child-support enforcement may actually have become a source of work disincentives, which could partly account for low-employment rates of young, less-educated black men. Simply stated, the current system requires less-educated men to meet their child-support obligations without enabling them to do so, and that is unreasonable.
That doesn't mean we should lower those requirements: fathers, like mothers, should be responsible for their children. However, we should provide reasonable supports so that these young men can live up to that responsibility. With the same level of persistence with which we pursued welfare reform, we should develop effective jobs programs for less-educated men. That may take some time, because no-one expects the boom economy that absorbed so many mothers escaping welfare to return anytime soon.
Until fathers who participate in programs can actually find work, we should create public service jobs so that they can make meaningful contributions to society in return for the wages they earn. And, if these wages are too low to enable them to pay their rent, food, transportation, and child-support obligations, we should subsidize their wages, just as we do for mothers. Finally, if they are already behind in their child support payments, we should start them on the road to citizenship by subsidizing their earnings as soon as they begin working. And as long as they pay their child-support obligations during every month they work, that earnings subsidy should continue.
Welfare reform established some important precedents for solving long-standing problems in our society. We treated welfare citizens like all citizens, by requiring them to work and support their own children, and we gave them the help they need to do so. The welfare rolls fell, employment rates among less-educated women rose, and child-poverty rates fell.
Though the requirements are in place, we lack at least three conditions before we can apply this successful strategy to young, less-educated black males: a booming economy, effective employment programs, and adequate earnings subsidies. While we wait for the first two conditions, public-service employment can fill the gap. But this and an adequate earnings subsidy require yet another condition: the public will to act.
Welfare reform established some important precedents for solving long-standing problems in our society. But we lack at least three conditions before we can apply this successful strategy to young, less-educated black males: a booming economy, effective employment programs, and adequate earnings subsidies. While we wait for the first two conditions, public-service employment can fill the gap. But this and an adequate earnings subsidy require yet another condition: the public will to act.