Testimony on Unmarried Mothers and Welfare Reform
Senate Committee on Finance
Douglas J. Besharov, March 14, 1995
Mr. Packwood, members of the committee, it is my great pleasure to
come before you today to discuss the importance of teen parenthood to welfare
As the nation debates the consequences of family breakdown, all
single mothers tend to be lumped together as if they are a homogeneous group.
Much of the commentary after former Vice President Dan Quayle's comments about
Murphy Brown giving birth out of wedlock, for example, reflect this simplistic
perspective. But single mothers are not all alike, and the failure to make
distinctions between female- headed households created by divorce and those
created by the birth of a child out of wedlock has obscured the nature of the
There is good reason to be concerned about the condition of
female-headed families. Almost half of all female-headed families with children
under 18 have incomes below the poverty line. This is almost five times the
poverty rate of two-parent families with children. Three-fourths of all time
periods spent on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) begin with the
creation of a female- headed family.
This new form of poverty is not caused directly by racial
discrimination or by structural deficiencies in the economy, but, rather, by a
major and troubling change in the behavior of American parents--the creation of
Over the past 25 years, the number of female-headed families
almost tripled. In 1965, there were 2.8 million female-headed families with
children, compared to 8.2 million in 1992. If the nation had had the same
proportion of female-headed households in 1985 as in 1959, there would have been
about 5.2 million fewer persons in poverty. According to a special Census Bureau
report, the poverty rate for black families would have been 20 percent in 1980,
rather than the actual 29 percent, if black family composition had remained what
it was in 1970.
Family breakdown and ensuing poverty give every indication of
worsening. If present trends continue, about 60 percent of all children born in
1980 will spend part of their childhood in a family headed by a mother who is
divorced, separated, never married, or widowed. Some social scientists predict
that, in the next generation, half of all children will be born out of wedlock,
and that half of all children born to married parents will see their parents
divorce before they are 18.
Out-of-wedlock births and divorces impoverish hundreds of
thousands of American families. The median income for female-headed families is
about one-third that of intact families. In 1993, the median family income for
children living with both parents was $43,578. For children living with their
mothers only, however, median family income was $12,073.
Lumping all poor female-headed families together is a deeply
misleading rhetorical convenience. Hidden by aggregate statistics about their
poverty and social dysfunction are substantial differences among female-headed
families. As the following Census Bureau statistics establish, families headed
by divorced mothers are, in general, doing much better than aggregate statistics
suggest, and families headed by never-married mothers much worse.
* In 1993, the median family income for never-married mothers with
children under the age of 18 was $9,292, compared to $17,014 for divorced women
* Marital status also explains the income disparity between white
and black female-headed families. In 1993, the median income of black
female-headed families was only 64 percent of white female- headed families,
$9,389 versus $14,589. But controlling for marital status, the gap narrows to
about 25 percent. The relevant figures are: $11,868 for divorced black mothers
and $18,512 for their white counterparts; for never-married black mothers it was
$8,744 and $10,112 for whites.
* When one considers that 66 percent of all out-of-wedlock births
occurred to young women between the ages of 15 and 24 in 1988, it becomes easier
to see why their financial situation is so much worse than their divorced
counterparts. Never-married mothers are on the average 10 years younger than
divorced mothers. The average age range of never-married mothers is 20 to 29;
for divorced mothers, it is 30 to 39. The age spread for this second group is
lower than it might otherwise be because it includes many unwed mothers who
marry, but only for a short time.
Never-married mothers are also, on the average, much less
educated. Only 61 percent of never-married mothers have a high school diploma
compared to 83 percent of divorced mothers. This latter figure, too, is pulled
down by the number of formerly unwed mothers who subsequently marry.
Thus, age, lack of education, and other demographic factors
combine to give never-married women much poorer job prospects. In 1993, 58
percent of divorced mothers worked full-time, and an additional 12 percent
worked part-time, but only 28 percent of never- married mothers worked
full-time, and 1 1 percent part-time. And their lack of work experience is only
exacerbated by the fact that young, single mothers have little chance of
completing their education or acquiring job skills while. having to care for a
Is This "Murphy Brown"?
These demographic differences between unmarried and divorced women
translate into dramatically different rates of AFDC utilization. A much higher
proportion of unwed mothers go on welfare than do divorced mothers. According to
AEI's Nick Eberstadt, almost three- fifths of children born out of wedlock in
the United States were on AFDC in 1982, compared to just under a third of
children of divorced mothers. In fact, children of never-married mothers are
three times more likely to be on welfare than are children of divorced mothers.
Teens have the worst prospects of all unmarried mothers. In 1988,
65 percent of teen mothers were unmarried at the time of their first child's
birth, compared to 15 percent in 1950. According to a Congressional Budget
Office report, 77 percent of unmarried adolescent mothers were welfare
recipients within five years of the birth of their first child. Sixty percent of
AFDC mothers under the age of 30 had their first child as a teenager.
Never-married mothers not only go on welfare in greater numbers
than divorced women, but they also stay on longer. While divorced women
typically use welfare as a temporary measure until they get back on their feet,
unmarried mothers become trapped in long-term welfare dependency. In a study of
welfare mothers, Nicholas Zill, formerly of Child Trends, Inc., and his
colleagues found that 43 percent of long- term AFDC recipients were 17 years old
or younger at the time of their first birth, compared to 25 percent of
According to a study by Harvard's David Ellwood, about half of the
new entrants to AFDC will be off welfare within four years, most within two
years. The other half, however, are on for much longer--on average, almost seven
years. More than any other single factor, marital status determines whether a
woman entering AFDC will become a long-term recipient. Forty percent of
never-married mothers will receive AFDC for 10 years or more, compared to 14
percent of divorced mothers.
Levels of child support also vary markedly between these two
groups of single mothers. In 1987, 77 percent of divorced mothers received child
support awards, compared to only 20 percent of never- married mothers. The
average annual payment to divorced mothers was $3,073, while the average payment
to never-married mothers was $1,632.
Divorced mothers and their children suffer less severe poverty for
shorter periods of time than do never-married mothers and their children. This
is not to say that post-divorce poverty is not a serious problem; it is. But
much more than a divorce, an out-of- wedlock birth to a young mother seems to be
a direct path to long-term poverty and welfare dependency.
The economic consequences of our high illegitimacy rate seem
beyond debate. It is one thing when a divorced, high profile television
newswoman on a sitcom has a baby without her ex-husband's financial support; it
is quite another when a teenager or a young mother on welfare does. The
difference, to put it bluntly, is money.
Acknowledging this dichotomy between divorced and unwed mothers is
the first step toward developing effective social welfare policies. Both groups
deserve our attention. But policies developed for each need to be based on a
realistic understanding of the deep differences between them.
For your reference, I have included five graphs that illustrate
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