It’s a effort of NRFC, which is a division of ACF which is an office of OFA which is a branch of HHS, which of course is a department of the Executive branch of the USA. Phew. Now that we have that out of the way. Here is what it does:
The primary objectives of the NRFC are to:
- Promote responsible, caring, and effective parenting
- Enhance the abilities and commitment of unemployed or low-income fathers to provide material support for their families and to avoid or leave welfare programs
- Improve fathers’ ability to effectively manage family business affairs
- Encourage and support healthy marriages and married fatherhood
Specifically, the NRFC is responsible for:
- The design, promotion and distribution of a media campaign to raise responsible fatherhood awareness
- The development of a national clearinghouse and Website that promotes and supports Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood
- The provision of technical assistance to ACF-funded demonstration programs
Now, I don’t want to poke fun at all of this – their aims are extremely important. I only ask, is this effort likely to have any impact at all on these problems? How will the benefits and costs of these programs be measured? What will happen if the program does not achieve its objectives?
Another example is welfare. To sketch a brief history of welfare, it emerged in the nineteenth century as “Widows and orphans pensions”, which were paid by the state to destitute families whose breadwinner had passed away. They were often not available to blacks; they were never available to unwed mothers. Though public services expanded in the first half of the twentieth century, that mentality was very much the same: public services were about supporting unfortunate families, not unwed mothers. Unwed mothers could not, in most cases, obtain welfare; they were not allowed in public housing (which was supposed to be–and was–a way station for young, struggling families on the way to homeownership, not a permanent abode); they were otherwise discriminated against by social services. The help you could expect from society was a home for wayward girls, in which you would give birth and then put the baby up for adoption.
The description of public housing in the fifties is shocking to anyone who’s spent any time in modern public housing. Big item on the agenda at the tenant’s meeting: housewives, don’t shake your dustcloths out of the windows–other wives don’t want your dirt in their apartment! Men, if you wear heavy work boots, please don’t walk on the lawns until you can change into lighter shoes, as it damages the grass! (Descriptions taken from the invaluable book, The Inheritance, about the transition of the white working class from Democrat to Republican.) Needless to say, if those same housing projects could today find a majority of tenants who reliably dusted, or worked, they would be thrilled.
Public housing was, in short, a place full of functioning families.
Now, in the late fifties, a debate began over whether to extend benefits to the unmarried. It was unfair to stigmatise unwed mothers. Why shouldn’t they be able to avail themselves of the benefits available to other citizens? The brutal societal prejudice against illegitimacy was old fashioned, bigoted, irrational.
But if you give unmarried mothers money, said the critics, you will get more unmarried mothers.
Ridiculous, said the proponents of the change. Being an unmarried mother is a brutal, thankless task. What kind of idiot would have a baby out of wedlock just because the state was willing to give her paltry welfare benefits?
People do all sorts of idiotic things, said the critics. If you pay for something, you usually get more of it.
C’mon said the activists. That’s just silly. I just can’t imagine anyone deciding to get pregnant out of wedlock simply because there are welfare benefits available.
Of course, change didn’t happen overnight. But the marginal cases did have children out of wedlock, which made it more acceptable for the next marginal case to do so. Meanwhile, women who wanted to get married essentially found themselves in competition for young men with women who were willing to have sex, and bear children, without forcing the men to take any responsibility. This is a pretty attractive proposition for most young men. So despite the fact that the sixties brought us the biggest advance in birth control ever, illegitimacy exploded. In the early 1960s, a black illegitimacy rate of roughly 25 percent caused Daniel Patrick Moynihan to write a tract warning of a crisis in “the negro family” (a tract for which he was eviscerated by many of those selfsame activists.)
By 1990, that rate was over 70 percent. This, despite the fact that the inner city, where the illegitimacy problem was biggest, only accounts for a fraction of the black population.
But in that inner city, marriage had been destroyed. It had literally ceased to exist in any meaningful way. Possibly one of the most moving moments in Jason de Parle’s absolutely wonderful book, American Dream, which follows three welfare mothers through welfare reform, is when he reveals that none of these three women, all in their late thirties, had ever been to a wedding.
Marriage matters. It is better for the kids; it is better for the adults raising those kids; and it is better for the childless people in the communities where those kids and adults live. Marriage reduces poverty, improves kids outcomes in all measurable ways, makes men live longer and both spouses happier. Marriage, it turns out, is an incredibly important institution. It also turns out to be a lot more fragile than we thought back then. It looked, to those extremely smart and well-meaning welfare reformers, practically unshakeable; the idea that it could be undone by something as simple as enabling women to have children without husbands, seemed ludicrous. Its cultural underpinnings were far too firm. Why would a woman choose such a hard road? It seemed self-evident that the only unwed mothers claiming benefits would be the ones pushed there by terrible circumstance.
This argument is compelling and logical. I would never become an unwed welfare mother, even if benefits were a great deal higher than they are now. It seems crazy to even suggest that one would bear a child out of wedlock for $567 a month. Indeed, to this day, I find the reformist side much more persuasive than the conservative side, except for one thing, which is that the conservatives turned out to be right. In fact, they turned out to be even more right than they suspected; they were predicting upticks in illegitimacy that were much more modest than what actually occurred–they expected marriage rates to suffer, not collapse.
How did people go so badly wrong? Well, to start with, they fell into the basic fallacy that economists are so well acquainted with: they thought about themselves instead of the marginal case. For another, they completely failed to realise that each additional illegitimate birth would, in effect, slightly destigmatise the next one. They assigned men very little agency, failing to predict that women willing to forgo marriage would essentially become unwelcome competition for women who weren’t, and that as the numbers changed, that competition might push the marriage market towards unwelcome outcomes. They failed to forsee the confounding effect that the birth control pill would have on sexual mores.