The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Weakness of Welfare Reform

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

While priding itself that welfare reform has moved millions of unwed mothers into the labor force, the political class has been less than candid in pointing out how the 1996 initiative has failed to achieve one of its key objectives: reversing the nation’s high rates of out-of-wedlock childbearing. While the legislation appears to have held illegitimacy rates at bay for a few years, data from the National Center for Health Statistics reveal that measures of childbearing outside of marriage have been on the rise again among almost all population groups since 2002, reaching historically high levels in 2007.

In 2007, the birth rate for unmarried women increased 5 percent to 52.9 births per 1,000 women (ages 15–44). Among unmarried women, the birth rate is up 18 percent since 1996 (when the rate was 44.8) and up 21 percent since 2002 (when the rate was 43.7). Also in 2007, the proportion of all births that were to unmarried women reached an all-time high, 39.7 percent, up from 32.4 percent in 1996. Among African-Americans, the proportion of all births to unmarried women hit a staggering 71.6 percent. Given that the total fertility rate is at its highest rate since 1971 (reaching 2.1225 births per woman in 2007), these rising measures of illegitimacy are almost certain to trigger expansion of federal social-service programs that welfare reform was supposed to reign in.

The irony is that by spending so much energy on persuading unwed mothers to work outside the home rather than simply removing the incentives built into the means-tested welfare system that alleviate the moral hazard of having children outside of marriage, the architects and implementers of the 1996 legislation ended up with perhaps less reform and more of the status quo than they are willing to admit.

(Brady E. Hamilton et al., “Births; Preliminary Data for 2007,” National Vital Statistics Reports, Vol. 57, No. 12, March 18, 2009, National Center for Health Statistics.)