Peter Pringle's America: Scrooge looks at single parents

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The Independent Online
CHARLES MURRAY is this season's unreconstructed Scrooge. His Christmas message is: end welfare to single-parent families. A longtime critic of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, Murray - the social scientist who taught Ronald Reagan to let the poor stew - has declared that the real problem facing the US today is not crime or drugs, poverty, illiteracy or homelessness.

His formula for dealing with illegitimate births goes like this: in the Sixties, as the illegitimate birth rate for blacks passed the 25 per cent mark, black crime shot up. The black family began to disintegrate. The present danger, Murray says, is that white illegitimate births have reached 22 per cent. His message: stem this tide or expect social breakdown among poor whites to be as swift as it was among poor blacks. Like an increasing number of social scientists, he sees no way of requiring this generation of errant fathers, or 'welfare dads', to take up their responsibilities. Murray's solution is shock therapy: cut off the oxygen that sustains the system.

The text used freely by Murray and the anti-welfare group is a study entitled Sex Codes Among Inner-City Youth by Elijah Anderson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. In the study, Anderson outlines the 'game' played by boys and girls in a poor Philadelphia community where life's goal for young males is to impregnate as many females as possible because this is a sure way of gaining respect among their peers. The girls accept without promise of marriage because their dream is of a family and a home. In this 'hit and run' subculture, the boys never own up to a pregnancy and the result is an illegitimacy rate of 70-80 per cent.

Murray and his conservative fellow travellers want to rebuild the institution of marriage and resurrect the stigma of bastards and the image of fathers with shotguns warding off young studs. He wants to spend lavishly on state orphanages and, where the mother wants to keep the child, enlist the support not of government but relatives, friends, the church and philanthropic societies.

Needless to say, this approach has liberals in high dudgeon. Traditionally, liberals blame crime on poverty and joblessness. High rates of illegitimacy, they say, stem from people being poor, unemployed and without hope. And divorce and separation are factors that add to these high rates. Instead of blaming government, as conservatives do, for creating a culture among the poor of getting something for nothing, liberals are constantly trying to find new and more effective ways of government intervention and state-sponsored solutions. But the wall dividing the two approaches is cracking.

A decade ago, when Murray first argued that the ambitious social programmes of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society were, in fact, making things worse, liberals dismissed him. Today, they still basically disagree but they are much more respectful, calling him a 'lightning rod' who has been more successful than they have been in bringing the plight of the single-parent family to the top of the domestic policy agenda.

In his election campaign, President Clinton bowed to such conservative thinkers when he proposed limiting welfare for single- parent families to two years. The policy debate will break out into the open next year, and the result will almost certainly be a compromise, some middle ground where many reasonable voices will hold sway over Murray and his gang.

Among them is Professor Anderson himself - although his advice is scorned by the conservatives who freely use his fieldwork. In his excellent Philadelphia study, Anderson never argued against welfare. Quite the contrary: he thinks cutting off welfare to these poor families would be wrong because, in the mid- term, he does not see any chance of reducing illegitimate births. 'When you have something to protect, you are more circumspect, more careful about what you do and how you handle your body, but the profound socio-econmic changes America is experiencing cause despair among the poor . . . cutting off aid simply causes more despair and, in the end, greater alienation and more crime.'

Another reasonable voice is that of Ron Mincy of the Ford Foundation in New York. His point is that Murray is not talking about anything that government has not been thinking about for a long time. The rise of white single-parent families has been known for some time and policy responses are already under way. Since 1975 the federal government has been reforming welfare, trying to combine government and private support for 'fragile families'. These families, many without male heads of household, were formed over the past two decades as real wages for non-college workers declined, especially among males.

A key problem, argues Mincy, is that the government aid thus far has been directed solely at the mother and the child - alienating the male. Mincy favours projects to lure fathers back into the family. The Family Support Act of 1988 attempts such a task, offering employment and job training in return for child support.

Americans balk at paying for such programmes. Polls show that two out of three favour limiting the time people can collect government benefits. But telling people to get married is not the answer. Government has been singularly ineffective in promoting marriage in the past two decades and is likely to remain so. Instead, government has a responsibility to enable those who have children, under whatever circumstances, to care for their offspring. Welfare, for all its flaws, must stay in some form or another. Without it, we go back to the ragged schools and slum houses of Dickens's day.