Out-of-Wedlock Births Need to Be 'Stigmatized,' Welfare Expert Says

The American society and public policy need to be much more authoritative about communicating the norm because certain behaviors and lifestyles are undesirable, one of the nation's leading experts on poverty and welfare said, adding that out-of-wedlock births needs to be "stigmatized."

David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values and the host for a discussion on "Is the Marriage Gap Driving American Inequality?" at the Center for Public Conversation in New York City on Thursday evening, showed a public-funded poster saying if you finish high school education, get a job and marry before having children, you have a 98 percent chance of not being in poverty.

Blankenhorn then asked the guest, Lawrence M. Mead, who teaches politics at New York University and whose books and articles provided the theoretical basis for American welfare reform in the 1990s, what he thinks of the criticism that such ads point a finger at unmarried mothers, who are seen as victims.

Critics say you can't stigmatize people, "but I don't see an alternative to that," Mead replied. Society and public policy needs to be much more authoritative about communicating the norm, he said. "We have to go back to regime where we disapproved unwed pregnancies." We need to say that certain behaviors and lifestyles are undesirable, though not with angry finger-pointing, he added.

Mead has authored many books, one of them is From Prophecy to Charity: How to Help the Poor, which critiques the philosophical presuppositions of past and current endeavors to alleviate poverty and provides a framework to guide future efforts based on what has been proven to actually help those in need: charity rooted in love.

Blankenhorn quoted excerpts of the book. "Poverty tends to arise in the first place because poor parents have children outside marriage and then do not work regularly to support them..."

Poverty would be a simple problem if it only meant economic need. Sometimes it does. Children, the elderly and disabled, and families in the grip of natural disasters – all can be made destitute by forces beyond their control. But in an affluent society like ours, poverty is not usually forced on people for very long by conditions. Typically it has a behavioral dimension as well. The poor may suffer from low wages or health problems, for example, but most have become poor, at least in part, due to not working, having children outside marriage, abusing drugs, or breaking the law. This is particularly true for people who remain poor for more than a year or two."

Is that language mean? Blankenhorn asked. The criticism that such a view overlooks many problems the poor face becomes relevant only after a poor person starts working, and after you are in the system, Mead responded, adding problems the poor face must also be addressed. "[But] it's by going to work that you become unequal... You have to be a worker."

Studies suggest that having unwed mothers go to work is actually pro-marriage, Mead said. "A mother who is required to work is more likely to marry than who isn't." That's because she has more income, not just the welfare, and she thinks she can afford to get married. It's good for the child, too, he added. If the mother works, she will be more confident about herself, and the child will be under childcare rather than sit at home.

Mead has also written a book on how to put the fathers to work using child support. This also has pro-marriage effects, he said.

However, work is only one part of the solution. But, Mead said, the public is ambivalent about the issue of marriage, and not about the requirement to work. People think work can be enforced but it can't be so in the area of marriage. "They don't want to stigmatize single mothers… They can stigmatize the non-worker."

There is resistance towards enforcement of behavior to tackle poverty because many politicians see poverty in terms of a social barrier, Mead suggested, adding he views it as lack of obligations, which is quite the opposite.

Many think the Bible encourages Christians to give to the poor without asking any questions, or demanding any behavioral changes. But life is about obligations, Mead said. God also expects us to help ourselves in many things and also to behave responsibly.

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