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 Stories for April 8, 1998

New Families: Do They Work?
A Radical Solution for a Hideous Embarrassment

This is the first of a series by Berkeley faculty focusing on the troubled state of American families and calling for new policies directed toward helping children.
The authors were brought together from across the campus through an interdisciplinary seminar, the Berkeley Forum on the Family. They are among 11 faculty who have collaborated on a book, “All Our Famillies: New Policies for a New Century.” These essays, written for Berkeleyan, are aimed at bringing the forum debates to a larger campus audience.

by Stephen D. Sugarman, Professor of Law
posted Apr. 8, 1998

From a child’s experience, the support our society gives to single-parent families does not make good sense. Financial assistance depends not on whether the child needs help but on why one parent is absent.

If the child has poor parents who never married and don’t live together, she is relegated to an increasingly torn social safety net.

If the child comes from divorced parents, he often must rely on hit-and-miss payments from his absent father, despite beefed up child-support obligations and increased child-support enforcement efforts.

But if the child’s father dies, Social Security comes to the rescue.

Most people think Social Security is a program for the elderly. Few know that our social security system annually spends more than $15 billion on more than three million children (and their caretaker parents). Most of these benefits to children are paid following the death of a breadwinner parent, and monthly payments reflect the earnings of the deceased. It is like guaranteed life insurance, or perhaps a better analogy is to a guaranteed annuity that is paid until the child is 18. And the benefits are paid whether or not the deceased parent actually left life insurance or other assets.

The surviving parent can work and not lose a single dollar of benefits. Even if she earns a substantial salary, her children’s benefits are still completely paid. Furthermore, not only does no one insist that the surviving mother work for pay, she is allowed to claim caretaker benefits even if she had been working full time before her husband’s death and now decides to quit her job and stay home with her children. No one says these mothers are living in a culture of dependency.

The contrast with welfare mothers could not be more stark.

For the never-married mother whose lover has disappeared, our country’s current advice is: “You never should have had your baby. Now you must live with your situation. You may get a small amount of welfare on a temporary basis, but if you manage to obtain support from that deadbeat dad, or if you earn any income, expect your benefit check to be reduced accordingly.”

Divorced mothers receiving welfare, on the other hand, are increasingly told: “You should never have married the bum” or – alternatively – “you should have stayed married to him.”

Regardless of what we think of these mothers, their children share a common condition: their fathers are absent, and they are in financial need. But only toward those children whose father’s absence is due to death does our society display a generous spirit.

Imagine for a moment that Social Security (or an equivalent federal scheme) insured all children against the risk that an absent parent would fail to provide the necessary financial security. Imagine further that single mothers in all these households could combine this public income support with earnings from their own employment.

Rather than believing in the fantasy that welfare moms could become self-supporting if only they weren’t so lazy, we as a society would be giving all of our children a much better chance at a decent life, no matter what kind of single-parent family they come from.

It is a hideous embarrassment that the most powerful country in the world has the highest child poverty rate of all industrialized nations (see table below).

In any case, we taxpayers more than pay for our stinginess in the socially dysfunctional behavior that so many children who grow up in poverty later display.

I don’t mean to say that money is everything. Other collective efforts are needed, and single parents do need to take responsibility for their families – but on fair terms. In the meantime, punishing innocent children for the real or imagined sins of their parents is a sad reflection on us all.

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