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Welfare 'reform' threatens to leave dads behind

USA Today, April 24, 2002

In many ways, the welfare-reform efforts of the past seven years have been an astonishing success. Caseloads have dropped by half, child-poverty rates have fallen significantly, and about 2 million welfare recipients have made the transition to work.

Of course, that's telling the story from the women's point of view. They were the primary targets of the reform efforts to replace a culture of dependency with a work ethic.

But a very different tale unfolds when looking at the unmarried fathers of their children. Consider African-Americans, who make up 40% of the welfare caseload. For young, black men with a high school degree or less, the situation is getting worse rather than better. During the past 20 years, the percentage who are employed has slipped from 62% to 52%.

Even during the economic boom of the past seven years, the employment rate for those men barely rose. Compare that with the success of similarly educated black women, whose employment rate jumped from 37% to 52% during the same period.

If the goal of reform is to improve the futures of poor children by lifting their mothers out of dependency, fathers need to be included. Yet with the House set to vote on reauthorizing welfare reform before Memorial Day, neither lawmakers nor the White House is considering including fathers. Even women's groups oppose the idea, though women presumably have something to gain if men can pay child support.

Money is the issue. Congress claims it can't afford to expand work programs to include men at the same time it is waging war on terrorism and watching the budget deficit rise. Women's groups that lobby on behalf of welfare mothers say any dollar spent on men won't be spent on poor mothers. But the real question is whether welfare reform can ignore the men and still succeed.

Not likely. Take the goal of improving marriage rates among welfare mothers, a top priority of many Republicans in Congress. They argue that marriage is the shortest path to improving conditions for children, and data support the claim. Children tend to be better off financially, educationally and emotionally when raised by both parents.

But former welfare moms who are employed have few reasons to marry a partner who lacks job skills, presenting another burden.

Women's groups argue that poor mothers need independence, which means more child-care money, more cash support and better preschools. But more resources can't take the place of a parent. Female-headed households are far more likely to be poor. And children who grow up with their fathers are less likely to get into trouble and more likely to do better in school.

In the long run, welfare reform's success will be judged by standards far broader than just the number of women moved into jobs. Success will come from stable, independent and emotionally healthy families' ability to raise children with real futures.

That requires a surge in two-parent families. And that means building up the supply of marriageable young men with job skills.

Several proven paths exist for providing job training to young men with low education. The non-profit Welfare to Work Partnership runs such a program in five cities. Its Miami program trained and placed 108 men, a third of them with criminal records. The one-year track record shows 83% still on the job -- the same kind of success story welfare reform produced with women.

The risk lies not with including the men, but excluding them.  

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