A Modest Proposal to Break the Welfare Cycle

Take away welfare mothers' children.

Scragged has explained how the way our welfare system operates in practice crushes the human spirit of the recipients, degrades them from citizens to subjects, and turns the social workers who operate the system into petty tyrants.

The bureaucrats who administer the programs write rules to make it difficult for welfare recipients to get out of the programs and into productive employment; they don't want to lose any clients because that would reduce their budget.  This Boston Globe op-ed reminds us of the vehement opposition which arose when President Clinton reformed welfare to encourage recipients to work:

... it is clear that welfare reform has been a shining success. The Republican Congress that passed it and the Democratic president who signed it turned out to be truer champions of the poor than those who inveighed against it so hysterically. [emphasis added]

When a welfare mother was forced to go to work, it wasn't long before she earned more money than welfare paid.  Her children were lifted out of poverty by welfare reform, not by welfare.  Helping people avoid welfare may reduce the amount of money available to the welfare bureaucrats, but having people support themselves improves their sense of self-worth and benefits society as a whole.

One Generation Is Enough

It could be argued that it is not so bad for welfare recipients to be trapped in the system because they'll eventually die.  The real issue is that many if not most welfare children are in the welfare system from day one; the welfare population grows faster than the rest of the population.

Welfare recipients need not worry about paying for more children; we taxpayers pay the cost.  Couple these incentives with schools which are content not to teach welfare children enough to be employable and we see many multi-generation welfare clans.

A recent court decision clears the way to keep welfare recipient's children from becoming welfare clients. The article "Travis judge tells woman to stop having kids" reports:

A judge in Travis County has ordered a woman to stop having children as a condition of her probation in her case of injury to a child by omission, an extraordinary measure that legal experts say could be unconstitutional.

The article explains that Felicia Salazar, 20, failed to stop her boyfriend from beating her 19 month old daughter and did not seek medical attention for her daughter's injuries.  The father was sentenced to 15 years in prison; Ms. Salazar was placed on probation for 10 years.

One of the conditions of her probation is that she not have any more children.  When probation is violated, the usual remedy is for the person to go to jail for the remainder of the original sentence.

There is debate whether this provision of her probation is constitutional.  The article quoted a former professor at the Texas School of Law:

"The state rarely tries to stop people from becoming parents, so there has not been much occasion to litigate that," he said. "But undoubtedly there is a constitutional right to have children ... and I doubt that one conviction for injury to a child is enough to forfeit that right."

On the other hand, Ms. Salazar would not be able to have children while in jail, so it is not clear that making her avoid reproduction as a condition of staying out of jail would violate the Constitution.

There are many rights included in the Bill of Rights and its various unwritten "penumbras".  These appear, at least to the Supreme Court, to include the right to abort your child, but nowhere did the Founding Fathers find it necessary to list the right to have a child and even that most fundamental right to liberty can constitutionally be removed by due process of law, as is the case with Ms. Salazar.

[A] Michigan law professor said that in a past Wisconsin case, a father of nine who was convicted of intentionally failing to pay child support was ordered to have no more children as a condition of probation. The Supreme Court of Wisconsin upheld that condition.

There is a precedent for forbidding a person to have children.  The ruling about Ms. Salazar probably won't be appealed - if the judge can't impose the condition he desires, he can cancel her probation and put her in jail, so she's unlikely to risk that.

Based on the Wisconsin decision, let's assume that the courts would rule that it's OK to require that she remain childless and that any child she has will be put up for adoption.  We then have the long-term solution to the welfare problem:

  1. Children on welfare have far less favorable outcomes than children who are not on welfare.  It is not unreasonable to declare that a welfare mother who has another child is knowingly abusing that child.
  2. If a woman on welfare has another child, that child is immediately put up for adoption - in other words, a mother being on welfare is prima facie evidence of being unfit for motherhood.  Of course, if she gets off welfare and stays off, she can have as many children as she desires just as anyone else can.

Women arguably have a constitutional right to have as many children as they want, but they most certainly do not have an unlimited right to raise children at public expense.  Therefore, we propose that a woman can have one child at public expense, but any further children while she's on welfare will be automatically and irrevocably put up for adoption.

If she leaves the system, has more children, and then wants back in, any extra children are likewise adopted out.  The increased supply of adoptable children will reduce the fees parents have to pay and make it less necessary for would-be parents to seek children from abroad.

Not all welfare children end up on welfare themselves, of course, but making welfare families smaller will reduce the burdens on single mothers which will further reduce the number of welfare children who end up on welfare.  Thus, long-term, multi-generational welfare situations will die out over time.

It's often argued that every child should be a wanted child.  Who could want a child more than prospective parents who are willing to spend thousands of dollars pursuing adoption?  We generally recognize that engaged, loving parents are the single most important indicator of whether a child will succeed in later life.  Shouldn't we be doing all we can to attempt to make this possible?

Welfare mothers are perfectly capable of responding intelligently to the incentives placed before them.  Right now, the incentives encourage them to create more welfare babies, which is exactly what society and taxpayers neither need nor want.  Remove that incentive, and at least part of the problem can be expected to go away.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments
Well, here's one politician that likes this idea anyway:

September 26, 2008 12:22 PM
The NY Times published an article pointing out that welfare payments given with conditions can actually modify people's behavior, making it less likely that they will transmit the culture of poverty to their children:

A Payoff Out of Poverty?
For a decade, Mexico has offered assistance to the poor on the condition that they visit clinics, attend
workshops and keep their kids in school. Can that system work here?

The article makes it clear that keeping the children in school is a big factor in whether the children can get out of poverty. That assumes, of course, that the schools actually teach, but as we know from generations of immigrants who learned English before our schools decided that politically correctness was more important than transmitting knowledge, having kids attend effective schools does indeed reduce poverty.
December 21, 2008 11:31 AM
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