Relationship Between the Welfare State and Crime


Mr. Chairman, Distinguished Members of the Committee:

My name is Michael Tanner and I am the director of health andwelfare studies at the Cato Institute. I appreciate the opportunityto appear before the committee on an issue of extreme importance tothe American people. There is no doubt that juvenile crime is aserious and continuing problem in this country. There are manyfactors contributing to the rise in juvenile violence and crime,from the glorification of violence in the media to the failure ofthe "war on drugs." But, today, I would like to focus on a factorthat has received far less attention -- the relationship betweenthe welfare state and crime.

Last year, the Maryland NAACP released a report concluding that"the ready access to a lifetime of welfare and free social serviceprograms is a major contributory factor to the crime problems weface today."(1) Their conclusion appears to be confirmed byacademic research. For example, research by Dr. June O'Neill's andAnne Hill for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Servicesshowed that a 50 percent increase in the monthly value of combinedAFDC and food stamp benefits led to a 117 percent increase in thecrime rate among young black men.(2)

Welfare contributes to crime in several ways. First, childrenfrom single-parent families are more likely to become involved incriminal activity. According to one study, children raised insingle-parent families are one-third more likely to exhibitanti-social behavior.(3) Moreover, O'Neill found that, holdingother variables constant, black children from single- parenthouseholds are twice as likely to commit crimes as black childrenfrom a family where the father is present. Nearly 70 percent ofjuveniles in state reform institutions come from fatherless homes,as do 43 percent of prison inmates.(4) Research indicates a directcorrelation between crime rates and the number of single-parentfamilies in a neighborhood.(5)

As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead noted in her seminal article for TheAtlantic Monthly:

The relationship [between single-parent families and crime] isso strong that controlling for family configuration erases therelationship between race and crime and between low income andcrime. This conclusion shows up time and again in the literature.The nation's mayors, as well as police officers, social workers,probation officers, and court officials, consistently point tofamily break up as the most important source of rising rates ofcrime.(6)

At the same time, the evidence of a link between theavailability of welfare and out-of-wedlock births is overwhelming.There have been 13 major studies of the relationship between theavailability of welfare benefits and out-of-wedlock birth. Ofthese, 11 found a statistically significant correlation. Among thebest of these studies is the work done by June O'Neill for the U.S.Department of Health and Human Services. Holding constant a widerange of variables, including income, education, and urban vs.suburban setting, the study found that a 50 percent increase in thevalue of AFDC and foodstamp payments led to a 43 percent increasein the number of out-of-wedlock births.(7) Likewise, research byShelley Lundberg and Robert Plotnick of the University ofWashington showed that an increase in welfare benefits of $200 permonth per family increased the rate of out-of-wedlock births amongteenagers by 150 percent.(8)

The same results can be seen from welfare systems in othercountries. For example, a recent study of the impact of Canada'ssocial-welfare system on family structure concluded that "providingadditional benefits to single parents encourages births of childrento unwed women."(9)

Of course women do not get pregnant just to get welfarebenefits. It is also true that a wide array of other social factorshas contributed to the growth in out-of-wedlock births. But, byremoving the economic consequences of a out-of-wedlock birth,welfare has removed a major incentive to avoid such pregnancies. Ateenager looking around at her friends and neighbors is liable tosee several who have given birth out of wedlock. When she sees thatthey have suffered few visible immediate consequences (the veryreal consequences of such behavior are often not immediatelyapparent), she is less inclined to modify her own behavior toprevent pregnancy.

Proof of this can be found in a study by Professor Ellen Freemanof the University of Pennsylvania, who surveyed black,never-pregnant females age 17 or younger. Only 40% of thosesurveyed said that they thought becoming pregnant in the next year"would make their situation worse."(10) Likewise, a study byProfessor Laurie Schwab Zabin for the Journal of Research onAdolescence found that: "in a sample of inner-city black teenspresenting for pregnancy tests, we reported that more than 31percent of those who elected to carry their pregnancy to term toldus, before their pregnancy was diagnosed, that they believed a babywould present a problem..."(11) In other words, 69 percent eitherdid not believe having a baby out-of-wedlock would present aproblem or were unsure.

Until teenage girls, particularly those living in relativepoverty, can be made to see real consequences from pregnancy, itwill be impossible to gain control over the problem of out-of-wedlock births. By disguising those consequences, welfare makes iteasier for these girls to make the decisions that will lead tounwed motherhood.

Current welfare policies seem to be designed with an appallinglylack of concern for their impact on out-of-wedlock births. Indeed,Medicaid programs in 11 states actually provide infertilitytreatments to single women on welfare.(12)

I should also point out that, once the child is born, welfarealso appears to discourage the mother from marrying in the future.Research by Robert Hutchins of Cornell University shows that a 10percent increase in AFDC benefits leads to an eight percentdecrease in the marriage rate of single mothers.(13)

As welfare contributes to the rise in out-of-wedlock births andsingle-parent families, it concomitantly contributes to theassociated increase in criminal activity.

Secondly, welfare leads to increased crime by contributing tothe marginalization of young black men in society. There arecertainly many factors contributing to the increasing alienationand marginalization of young black men, including racism, poverty,and the failure of our educational system. However, welfarecontributes as well. The welfare culture tells the man he is not anecessary part of the family. They are in effect cuckolded by thestate. Their role of father and breadwinner is supplanted by thewelfare check.

The role of marriage and family as a civilizing influence onyoung men has long been discussed. Whether or not strict causationcan be proven, it is certainly true that unwed fathers are morelikely to use drugs and become involved in criminal behavior.(14)Indeed, single men are five times more likely to commit violentcrimes than married men.(15)

Finally, in areas where there is a high concentration ofwelfare, there may be an almost total lack of male role models.This can lead to crime in two ways. First, as the Maryland NAACPputs it, "A child whose parents draw a welfare check without goingto work does not understand that in this society at least oneparent is expected to rise five days of each week to go to sometype of job."(16)

Second, boys growing up in mother only families naturally seekmale influences. Unfortunately, in many inner city neighborhoods,those male role models may not exist. As George Gilder, author ofWealth and Poverty, has noted, the typical inner-city today is"almost a matriarchy. The women receive all the income, dominatethe social-worker classes, and most of the schools." Thus, the boyin search of male guidance and companionship may end up in thecompany of gangs or other undesirable influences.(17)

Given all of the above, I believe it is clear that our currentsocial welfare system is a significant cause of juvenile crime andviolence in America today. Exactly how welfare should be reformedis undoubtedly beyond the scope of this hearing. The CatoInstitute's position, however, is well known. Our researchindicates that the current federal welfare system cannot bereformed. Accordingly, we have suggested that federal funding ofwelfare should be ended and responsibility for charity should beshifted first to the states and eventually to the privatesector.(18)

In conclusion, let me simple say that, whatever Congresseventually decides to do in the way of welfare reform, I hope thatyou will recognize the disastrous consequences of our currentwelfare system. The status quo is plainly and simply unacceptable.The relationship between our failed social welfare system andjuvenile violence and crime is one more urgent reason forreform.

Thank you. I would be pleased to answer any questions.


  1. John L. Wright, Marge Green, and Leroy Warren, Jr., "AnAssessment of Crime in Maryland Today," Maryland State Conferenceof Branches, NAACP, February 1994, "Executive Summary," p. 7.
  2. M. Anne Hill and June O'Neill, "Underclass Behaviors in theUnited States: Measurement and Analysis of Determinants," BarcuchCollege, City University of New York, March 1990.
  3. Deborah Dawson, MD, "Family Structure and Children's Health andWell-Being: Data From the 1988 Interview Survey on Child Health,"paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Population Associationof America, May 1990.
  4. William Barr, "Crime, Poverty, and Family," Heritage FoundationLectures, July 29, 1992, citing statistics from the Bureau ofJustice Statistics.
  5. See, for example, Douglas Smith and G. Roger Jarjoura, "Socialstructure and Criminal Victimization," Journal of Research in Crimeand Delinquency, February 1988; William Niskanen, "Crime, Police,and Root Causes," Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 218, November14, 1994.
  6. Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, "Dan Quayle Was Right, AtlanticMonthly, April 1993.
  7. Hill and O'Neill.
  8. Shelley Lundberg and Robert Plotnick, "Adolescent PremaritalChildbearing: Do Opportunity Costs Matter?" Population Associationof America, May 1990.
  9. Douglas Allen, "Welfare and the Family: The CanadianExperience," Journal of Labor Economics, January 1993.
  10. Ellen Freeman, Karl Rickles, et. al., "Adolescent ContraceptiveUse: Comparisons of Male and Female Attitudes and Information,"American Journal of Public Health, August 1980.
  11. Laurie Schwab Zabin, Nan Marie Astone, and Mark Emerson, "DoAdolescents Want Babies? The Relationship Between Attitudes andBehavior," Journal of Research on Adolescence, 1993. ProfessorZabin reports that among those teens who chose an abortion, fully78 percent believed that having a baby would pose a problem. But,as Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute points out"that is exactly the point: the more inconvenient unwed parenthoodseems to a teenager, the less likely it is that she will become amother. Douglas Besharov, letter to the editor, Wall StreetJournal, April 27, 1994.
  12. Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire,New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, and Pennsylvania. "TheInfertility Trap," Newsweek, April 4, 1994.
  13. Robert Hutchins, "Welfare, Remarriage and Marital Search,"American Economic Review, June 1989.
  14. Robert Lerman, "Unwed Fathers: Who Are They?" The AmericanEnterprise, September/October 1993.
  15. "From Home Life to Prison Life: The Roots of American Crime,"Rockford Institute Center on the Family in America, Vol. 3, no. 4,April 1994.
  16. Wright, Green, and Warren.
  17. See, for example, David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America:Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (New York: Basic Books,1995), pp. 26-32.
  18. See, Michael Tanner, "Ending Welfare as We Know It," CatoInstitute Policy Analysis no. 212, July 7, 1994.

Michael D. Tanner

Subcommittee on Youth Violence
Committee on the Judiciary
United States Senate