Myth: Welfare gives mothers an incentive to have children out of wedlock or break up marriages.

Fact: Most studies show no incentive for single motherhood.


Most evidence refutes the viewpoint that welfare contributes to out-of-wedlock childbirth or marital breakup. However, a few studies arrive at the opposite conclusion.


Claims that welfare promotes out-of-wedlock childbirth and marital breakup are unsupported by the current evidence. That is, the evidence is somewhat contradictory, although it tends to favor the viewpoint that welfare has no effect. Let's review both types of evidence:

Evidence refuting conservative claims

Between 1960 and 1990, out-of-wedlock births rose fivefold, from 5.3 to 28.0 percent of all births. (1) Conservatives claim that welfare is at least partially to blame for this statistic, but between 1970 and 1990 the value of AFDC benefits to poor women fell nearly 45 percent. (2) On the face of it, these statistics suggest that cutting welfare benefits increases out-of-wedlock childbirths!

Mississippi has the second highest rate of children born out of wedlock in the country. It also has the lowest welfare and food stamp benefits for AFDC mothers in the country. This correlation generally holds across the nation as well -- states with higher-than-average AFDC benefits tend to have lower-than-average nonmarital birthrates. (3)

Harvard economists David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane studied two groups of unmarried women: the first was eligible for benefits if they had children out of wedlock; the second was not. Even by limiting their comparison to states with high welfare benefits, they were unable to find a significant difference in either groups' rate of nonmarital childbirths.(4)

Researchers William Darity and Samuel Myers studied the relationship between female-headed households and the size of welfare benefits in specific geographical areas between 1955 and 1972. They found that the higher the welfare benefits, the lower the rate of female-headed households.(5)

And as for welfare's influence in encouraging mothers to divorce, the General Accounting Office released a report in 1987 that summarized more than one hundred studies of welfare since 1975. It found that "research does not support the view that welfare encourages two-parent family breakup." (6)

Evidence supporting conservative claims

Some studies have found that white women may be more likely to have children out of wedlock if they live in states with higher welfare benefits. However, nonmarital births among black and Hispanic women are not significantly correlated with higher welfare benefits. (7)

In 1990, researcher Robert Moffitt conducted a review of welfare studies and found that welfare has some effect on declining marriage rates. However, he also noted that welfare could not explain either the long-term decline in marriage rates or the most recent rise in female-headed households. (8)

In sum, welfare critics have an uphill battle trying to prove that welfare encourages mothers to divorce or have children outside marriage.

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1. Gregory Acs, "Does Welfare Promote Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing?", p. 51 in Isabel V. Sawhill (ed.), Welfare Reform: Analysis of the Issues (Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, 1995).

2. U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, 1994 Green Book, p. 324.

3. Robert Moffitt, "Incentive Effects of the U.S. Welfare System: A Review," Institute for Research on Poverty Special Report (Madison: IRP, 1990), p. 50; Marian Edelman, Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 71; MaryLee Allen and Karen Pittman, Welfare and Teen Pregnancy: What Do We Know? What Do We Do? (Washington, D.C.: Children's Defense Fund, 1986.)

4. David Ellwood and Mary Jo Bane, "The Impact of AFDC on Family Structure and Living Arrangments," Research in Economics 7 (1987), p. 139.

5. William Darity and Samuel Myers, "Does Welfare Dependency Cause Female Headship?" Journal of Marriage and the Family, November 1984, p. 770.

6. The GOA report was summarized in Frances Piven and Richard Cloward, "The Historical Sources of the Contemporary Relief Debate," The Mean Season: The Attack on the Welfare State, Fred Block, Richard Cloward, Barbara Ehrenriech and France Piven, eds., (New York: Pantheon, 1987), pp. 58-62.

7. 1994 Green Book, p. 53

8. Moffitt, pp. 91-2.