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Commentary By Heather Mac Donald

Love, Honor & Get Off Dole

Cities, Cities, Culture, Culture New York City, Poverty & Welfare, Race

Mayor Bloomberg has finally articulated his vision for welfare reform. Too bad he forgot to utter the most important word: marriage.

In a speech last month on welfare’s future, the mayor managed to combine former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s tough-love philosophy with the “never-seen-a-problem-a-program-won’t-cure” approach of the poverty advocates. It was a masterful synthesis, but nothing more than that, however welcome Bloomberg’s resounding embrace of work and fraud controls was to opponents of the dependency culture.

To be sure, the mayor presented two goals as his own contributions to welfare reform: preventing people from going onto welfare in the first place and helping them retain jobs when they leave the program. But all the specifics he proposes are tired retreads of programs the city has offered for years: after-school and GED programs, “personal skills development” and summer-jobs programs, all targeted at just those groups the city has always targeted: high school dropouts, foster care kids and juvenile delinquents.

Nothing new there. But it is not too late for Bloomberg to make a unique mark on welfare reform by promoting the single most effective means of achieving them: marriage.

Getting married before you have children is the best way to avoid going on welfare. Having children outside of wedlock, by contrast, is a highly efficient means of ensuring you’ll end up on the rolls. A welfare mother is almost by definition a single mother.

Increasing marriage rates also is the best way to improve a child’s well-being. If you measure welfare merely by income levels, as the advocates do, having married parents raises a child’s income far more than a hundred social programs can. According to a 1998 study by the National Center for Children in Poverty, illegitimate children are five times more likely to be poor than children of married parents.

But income levels are hardly the most important measure of a child’s chances in life. Social problems such as juvenile delinquency and dropping out of school are far more significant. Here, too, having two parents protects a child against anti-social behavior far more effectively than an army of social workers.

It is equally specious to talk about job retention without discussing the effects of single parenthood. The advocates are right: Many former welfare mothers do not hold on to their new jobs very long. It’s not hard to see why. A single working mom has exactly half the financial, emotional and kinship resources of her married peers. When her child falls ill, for example, she bears all the responsibility. Often, it’s her job that suffers.

There are, of course, many heroic single mothers who raise stable, law-abiding children while holding down full-time jobs. But they are fighting enormous odds, odds that Band-Aid solutions like job training and more day care money can never fully overcome.

If Bloomberg wants to change forever the prospects of poor children, he must start talking about the irreplaceable value of married parents every chance he gets and call on men to take responsibility for their children and the mothers of their children. He has proposed making noncustodial fathers subject to welfare work requirements, an admirable, long-overdue idea. He should supplement this with a call for procreative responsibility.

He should also renegotiate contracts with the city’s gazillion social service providers to require them to speak with clients about marriage at every possible juncture.

It is possible to change norms and social behavior through persuasion — witness the restigmatization of smoking. We could reclaim far more lost lives by revaluing marriage than were ever lost to Joe Camel.