For years sentiment has been building on the American right for an official "pro-family" policy. Such a policy would deploy some purposeful mix of social spending, tax incentives, family law reform, and miscellaneous regulation to encourage citizens, or at least parents of underage children, to take part in the traditionally structured family. At a minimum, on this view, government should try to ensure that children are born to married couples likely to stick together and look out for the child's welfare. In more ambitious versions, the state would also encourage one parent, normally the mother, to stay home to care for children not yet of school age rather than resume paid employment.
These ideas have been knocking around for some time and now have picked up one of their most distinguished exponents yet. Delivering the American Enterprise In-stitute's annual Boyer Lecture this December, UCLA social scientist James Q. Wilson laid out a five-point program of new government efforts aimed at "rebuilding the family." Columnist George Will promptly whooped up Wilson's proposals, especially his favorable comments about a "GI Bill" for mothers, a new federal program that would guarantee a large sum toward college expenses or other work training for moms who delay re-entering the labor force until their children are in school.
The imprimatur of a respected thinker like Wilson is likely to ensure that the GI-Bill-for-moms idea will remain in circulation for some time. Moreover, given the current state of conservative thinking, we can expect to begin hearing numerous other concrete proposals for new affirmative government initiatives aimed at reshaping family behavior in a "good" direction–social engineering of the right, you might call it. So it behooves libertarians to give this one a close look.
Wilson's lecture begins with a vivid account of the ills of the underclass, a group "armed to the teeth, excited by drugs, preoccupied with respect, and indifferent to the future." He traces these ills directly to the continuing illegitimacy boom, which of course has also been felt in higher social strata. In underclass culture, says Wilson, "a child is raised by an unwed girl, lives in a neighborhood filled with many sexual men but few committed fathers, and finds gang life to be necessary for self-protection and valuable for self-
Social science has now firmly–if tardily–backed up the common sense proposition that children raised by single mothers are more likely to get into trouble than those in intact families, even controlling for the effects of lower income. Wilson states that underclass culture is "growing more rapidly" than middle-class culture, though he does not explain how this squares with reports of plunging crime rates and fast-shrinking welfare rolls. Instead, he proceeds to propound a five-point program "to enhance family life and thereby reduce the size of the underclass."
Some of the five points are either not especially new or not hugely controversial. Wilson thinks adoption should be made easier for children languishing in foster care; no argument here. When the parents of pregnant teens cannot give them responsible supervision, he says, we should consider conditioning welfare benefits for them on their willingness to enter supervised group residences akin to the old Florence Crittenden Homes, which would enforce rules such as a ban on alcohol and drugs and restrict boyfriend visits to approved hours.
Wilson has also not lost hope in "early, intensive intervention" in the lives of disadvantaged youngsters, "much more intensive than what typically occurs in Project Head Start," supplementing ultra-high-quality day care with "parent training and home visitations" by social workers. He concedes that we don't know whether past small-scale successes of such programs could be replicated on a large scale today; as Charles Murray warns, the lack of a formula for such replication has been the wreck of many an ambitious social program.
Then Wilson suddenly arrives at the GI-Bill-for-mothers scheme, which, like the elephant in the elephant-and-rabbit stew, tends to stand out by sheer bulk from its commingled ingredients. "People–chiefly mothers–would be paid a public subsidy for discharging a vital social function," Wilson says. "Investing in early childhood is the most important investment any society can make."
Under the scheme, originally set forth in a 1993 Public Interest article by Richard and T. Grandon Gill, mothers who agree to forgo paid work until their children are of school age would receive substantial government subsidies in the form of educational credits which could be used later for college tuition, graduate education, or technical training. ("A Parental Bill of Rights," the article calls it, disproving the notion that libertarians are uniquely given to rights talk.)
The newly minted "rights" would come with plenty of strings attached. Not only would mothers not qualify for the benefit if they went to work while their children were small, but they would not be allowed to use the credits at later times if any subsequent children of theirs were still below school age. However, bearing a second child would probably increase the educational credits that a woman "earned" for later use.
What, one wonders, is this idea doing on a list of reforms intended to "reduce the size of the underclass"? To begin with, it would apparently be a universal entitlement, one that in fact might be used rather more by middle- and upper-class women than by their less well-off sisters, who are often not in a position to forgo work at first for several years while their children are small and then for another four or more while they attain a college degree.
At the same time, there's no hint in either the Gills' original proposal or Wilson's restatement of it that the program's benefits would not be made available to unwed or improvident moms. In fact the proposal would establish a powerful new incentive for early childbearing in or out of wedlock, which also correlates with later trouble for kids.
But it turns out that Wilson perceives in American society a second family crisis which may or may not have much to do with the illegitimacy or underclass crisis. This second crisis is the failure-of-mothers-to-stay-home crisis: In Wilson's view, too many women re-enter the work force and place their preschool children under others' care. Conservative journals for some time have inveighed against this practice as tantamount to child abuse.
The emergent line is that nonmaternal care for any longer than brief spells in any form, whether by relatives or friends, nannies or au pairs, church preschools or commercial chains, is just plain bad for kids, period. At times in his speech Wilson sounds as if the debate is over–which it isn't–and the conservatives have won: "Choices must be made between family and work. The first must take priority over the second." At other points he appears to concede that it is hardly a slam dunk for the "only maternal care will do" side.
But let us assume the antis prevail and that future observers come to see today's child care providers, whether for-hire or blood-related, in much the same light as readers of Grimm see the witch in "Hansel and Gretel." Does the rest of the scheme follow? If a consensus of American mothers someday comes to accept the idea of the universal badness of entrusted care, will they still have to be bribed to do the job properly themselves? (Wilson acknowledges the irony of "committing money to the task of inducing actions that were once the products of spontaneous arrangements.") And of all the possible schemes for bribing mothers to look after their own children, the Gill plan is particularly notable for its "horizontal inequities"–unfairly disparate treatment of similarly worthy parties–as well as for the range and variety of the perverse incentives it would create and unintended consequences it would engender.
Consider the front row in the Identity Studies 101 class at Pricey U. There sits 25-year-old Alice, whose tuition is being paid by the taxpayers because she had the foresight to give birth when she was 18. Next to her are Beth, whose parents are writing checks to Pricey at great sacrifice because their daughter insisted on attending college first and embarking on motherhood later (if at all), and Carl, who was never in a biological position to make much of a choice one way or the other. Not in the classroom at all, but working behind a counter in town, are Dora, who has no intention of going to college ever, and Esther, who is in a special plight of her own. She always planned to get a degree but thought she'd be clever and get the government to pay for it, the way lots of girls did, so she just hung out after graduating high school, figuring that before long she was bound to be married with a kid. But now she's 28, the right guy hasn't come along, and she's thinking of getting pregnant on purpose rather than wait any longer. Beth and Carl, their parents, and Dora are all destined to work harder or longer at their jobs so that Alice and possibly Esther can attend for free. Meanwhile, social life at Pricey U. has fizzled because half the women are eight, or 10, or 15 years older than nearly all the men.
The libertarian policy on fixing the family is far less convoluted: Get the government out of the way and let families fix themselves. It's true that the courts should enforce private commitments duly entered into, which may require some rewriting of current family law. But otherwise it's mostly a matter of repeal, lighten up, undistort: If we're so uneasy about the effects of day care on kids, why on earth do we keep having the IRS encourage it artificially through the child-care tax credit?
The key step in arresting the rise in illegitimacy, plainly, is that of ceasing to subsidize it. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the state of Vermont "has seen the nation's sharpest drop in teen pregnancies," 25 percent compared with a nationwide 12 percent, following reforms in which the state government stripped away many of the welfare and Medicaid goodies obtainable by becoming enceinte. Until just lately, "if a girl got pregnant, welfare set her up in an apartment," said one teacher, adding that many teens saw pregnancy as a way "to get out on your own." "People got pregnant on purpose to go on welfare," agreed another official. "It was a culture change," said Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat, of the newly favorable indicators. "The message was getting through immediately that this was not the way of life anymore."
The case against conservative social engineering is, in the end, the case for trusting actual families. Remove the mal-incentives and stop shoveling money at costly misbehavior, and in a free, affluent, and enlightened nation, family structure can begin to regulate itself–unsurprisingly, since parents now as always are best situated to figure out what's best for their kids. In their present gloomy mood, it's the social conservatives who've given up on this most basic of human institutions as too weak to recover without artificial methods.