Commentary

Al Gore’s New Paternalism

By Lisa E. Oliphant
June 17, 2000
Who better to head up a national “responsible fatherhood” campaign than the man who is avowedly against “new government programs for every individual problem or pathology”? In one sense, Vice President Al Gore may be on to something: there are too many government programs that emphasize curing social ills rather than preventing them, welfare being one example. If we’re not careful, however, “responsible fatherhood” could become another.

As we’re finding out, the problem with welfare reform is that it can do only so much for people who have been allowed into the system. Time limits and strict work requirements may cause more people to leave the rolls, but two-thirds of those who exit the system continue to rely on the government to meet their food, health care, housing and child care needs, and up to one-third eventually end up back on welfare.

Emphasizing responsible fatherhood as the critical next phase of welfare reform is, like time limits and work requirements, an attempt to put spilled milk back into the bottle. Gore’s ineffective ex post facto message says: “Acknowledge your responsibility for creating your children; work and pay child support, and if you fail to do either, your wages will be garnished, your bank account seized, driver’s license taken away, credit card applications rejected, and, if necessary, you will go to jail; and finally, find a way to spend time with your children.” Those are not bad goals in themselves. Few people would disagree that fathers should acknowledge and support their children, as well as take an interest in their lives. But there is something wildly improbable about the effectiveness of Al Gore telling an eighth-grade-educated former felon that out of his minimum-wage job he’s got to come up with enough funds to support the children he may not even know yet not work so hard that he doesn’t have enough time or energy to become a responsible, nurturing father.

What the country needs is not an emphasis on responsible fatherhood, but rather on “responsible parenthood,” which doesn’t attempt to clean up the mess; it tries to stop the mess before it happens. Nearly one-third of welfare recipients enroll because of an out-of-wedlock birth and about three-quarters of teen mothers eventually end up on welfare. In response, responsible parenthood says to potential young fathers and mothers, “Finish school, get a job, respect each other, get married and plan carefully before you decide to have children.” Responsible parenthood calls on both the man and the woman to exercise foresight and accept joint responsibility for the children they are about to create. If successful, it could mean, ultimately, a lot fewer young, single mothers entering the welfare rolls in the first place, having to hunt down delinquent fathers to pay child support.

Welfare reform’s “responsible parenthood” aims have so far met with very little success. Teenage pregnancy remains well above mid-1980s levels, and the declines that proponents cite began five years before the new welfare law was passed. Despite measures to decrease out-of-wedlock births, the proportion of children born to unwed mothers has remained high — at one of three births — since 1996.

Those disappointing results are hardly surprising, considering the mixed messages young men and women receive under welfare reform. On the one hand, they are discouraged from having children by being told they are no longer entitled to welfare; on the other hand, they see most states spending more per welfare family than was being spent prior to the new law and women with children continuing to get through the “gatekeepers” and signing up for that first check. So long as new applicants are allowed onto the rolls, and so long as states spend generously on welfare recipients, young women are going to continue to get pregnant and drop out of school and young men are going to persist in turning their fatherhood responsibilities over to the state.

Increasing child support payments and establishing paternity, while desirable goals, are not the keys to ending dependency. It is typically not women who fail to get their child support or whose children don’t get quality time with their fathers who end up on the welfare rolls — it is women who drop out of school to have children with men to whom they are not married. The next phase of welfare reform needs to target dependency at its roots. If Gore succeeds in promoting his version of “responsible fatherhood” as “the second generation of welfare reform,” this nation may get nothing but another generation of welfare recipients.

Lisa A. Oliphant is an entitlements policy analyst at the Cato Institute.