How The Welfare State Has Devastated African Americans

How The Welfare State Has Devastated African Americans


The rise of the welfare state in the 1960s contributed greatly to the demise of the black family as a stable institution. The out-of-wedlock birth rate among African Americans today is 73%, three times higher than it was prior to the War on Poverty. Children raised in fatherless homes are far more likely to grow up poor and to eventually engage in criminal behavior, than their peers who are raised in two-parent homes. In 2010, blacks (approximately 13% of the U.S. population) accounted for 48.7% of all arrests for homicide, 31.8% of arrests for forcible rape, 33.5% of arrests for aggravated assault, and 55% of arrests for robbery. Also as of 2010, the black poverty rate was 27.4% (about 3 times higher than the white rate), meaning that 11.5 million blacks in the U.S. were living in poverty.


When President Lyndon Johnson in 1964 launched the so-called War on Poverty, which enacted an unprecedented amount of antipoverty legislation and added many new layers to the American welfare state, he explained that his objective was to reduce dependency, “break the cycle of poverty,” and make “taxpayers out of tax eaters.” Johnson further claimed that his programs would bring to an end the “conditions that breed despair and violence,” those being “ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs.” Of particular concern to Johnson was the disproportionately high rate of black poverty. In a famous June 1965 speech, the president suggested that the problems plaguing black Americans could not be solved by self-help: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line in a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’” said Johnson.

Thus began an unprecedented commitment of federal funds to a wide range of measures aimed at redistributing wealth in the United States.[1]  From 1965 to 2008, nearly $16 trillion of taxpayer money (in constant 2008 dollars) was spent on means-tested welfare programs for the poor.

The economic milieu in which the War on Poverty arose is noteworthy. As of 1965, the number of Americans living below the official poverty line had been declining continuously since the beginning of the decade and was only about half of what it had been fifteen years earlier. Between 1950 and 1965, the proportion of people whose earnings put them below the poverty level, had decreased by more than 30%. The black poverty rate had been cut nearly in half between 1940 and 1960. In various skilled trades during the period of 1936-59, the incomes of blacks relative to whites had more than doubled. Further, the representation of blacks in professional and other high-level occupations grew more quickly during the five years preceding the launch of the War on Poverty than during the five years thereafter.

Despite these trends, the welfare state expanded dramatically after LBJ’s statement. Between the mid-Sixties and the mid-Seventies, the dollar value of public housing quintupled and the amount spent on food stamps rose more than tenfold. From 1965 to 1969, government-provided benefits increased by a factor of 8; by 1974 such benefits were an astounding 20 times higher than they had been in 1965. Also as of 1974, federal spending on social-welfare programs amounted to 16% of America’s Gross National Product, a far cry from the 8% figure of 1960. By 1977 the number of people receiving public assistance had more than doubled since 1960.

The most devastating by-product of the mushrooming welfare state was the corrosive effect it had (along with powerful cultural phenomena such as the feminist and Black Power movements) on American family life, particularly in the black community. As provisions in welfare laws offered ever-increasing economic incentives for shunning marriage and avoiding the formation of two-parent families, illegitimacy rates rose dramatically.

For the next few decades, means-tested welfare programs such as food stamps, public housing, Medicaid, day care, and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families penalized marriage. A mother generally received far more money from welfare if she was single rather than married. Once she took a husband, her benefits were instantly reduced by roughly 10 to 20 percent. As a Cato Institute study noted, welfare programs for the poor incentivize the very behaviors that are most likely to perpetuate poverty.[2]  Another Cato report observes:

“Of course women do not get pregnant just to get welfare benefits…. But, by removing the economic consequences of out-of-wedlock birth, welfare has removed a major incentive to avoid such pregnancies. A teenager looking around at her friends and neighbors is liable to see several who have given birth out-of- wedlock. When she sees that they have suffered few visible consequences … she is less inclined to modify her own behavior to prevent pregnancy…. Current welfare policies seem to be designed with an appalling lack of concern for their impact on out-of-wedlock births. Indeed, Medicaid programs in 11 states actually provide infertility treatments to single women on welfare.”

The marriage penalties that are embedded in welfare programs can be particularly severe if a woman on public assistance weds a man who is employed in a low-paying job. As a report puts it: “When a couple’s income nears the limits prescribed by Medicaid, a few extra dollars in income cause thousands of dollars in benefits to be lost. What all of this means is that the two most important routes out of poverty—marriage and work—are heavily taxed under the current U.S. system.”[3]

The aforementioned report adds that “such a system encourages surreptitious cohabitation,” where “many low-income parents will cohabit without reporting it to the government so that their benefits won’t be cut.” These couples “avoid marriage because marriage would result in a substantial loss of income for the family.”

A 2011 study conducted jointly by the Institute for American Values’ Center for Marriage and Families and the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project suggests that “the rise of cohabiting households with children is the largest unrecognized threat to the quality and stability of children’s family lives.” The researchers conclude that cohabiting relationships are highly prone to instability, and that children in such homes are consequently less likely to thrive, more likely to be abused, and more prone to suffering “serious emotional problems.”

William Galston, President Bill Clinton‘s Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, estimated that the welfare system, with its economic disincentives to marriage, was responsible for at least 15% to 20% of the family disintegration in the United States. Libertarian scholar Charles Murray has placed the figure at somewhere around 50%. By Murray’s reckoning, the growth and increased liberalization of the “welfare complex” have eroded the traditional ethos of working-class communities that once held people who worked at low-wage jobs, and men who married the mothers of their children, in much higher esteem than unwed parents who became wards of the state.

The phenomenon that Murray describes has been in clear evidence for decades. Consider, for instance, a Harlem-based initiative in the 1980s known as Project Redirection, whose aim was to persuade young women who had already borne one child out of wedlock to avoid repeating that mistake. According to the Manpower Development Research Corporation’s evaluation report on this project: “[M]any [beneficiaries] were beginning to view getting their own welfare grants as the next stage in their careers…. [I]t became apparent that some participants’ requests for separate grants and independent households were too often a sign of manipulation by boyfriends, in whose interest it was to have a girlfriend on welfare with an apartment of her own.”

The results of welfare policies discouraging marriage and family were dramatic, as out-of-wedlock birthrates skyrocketed among all demographic groups in the U.S., but most notably African Americans. In the mid-1960s, the out-of-wedlock birth rate was scarcely 3% for whites, 7.7% for Americans overall, and 24.5% among blacks. By 1976, those figures had risen to nearly 10% for whites, 24.7% for Americans as a whole, and 50.3% for blacks in particular. In 1987, for the first time in the history of any American racial or ethnic group, the birth rate for unmarried black women surpassed that for married black women. Today the illegitimacy rates stand at 41% for the nation overall, and 73% for African Americans specifically.[4]

Welfare not only increases illegitimacy and poverty in the short term, but it inflicts long-lasting, even permanent, handicaps on children who are raised in welfare-dependent homes. Dr. June O’Neill and Anne Hill, comparing children who were identical in terms of such social and economic factors as race, family structure, neighborhood, family income, and mothers’ IQ and education, found that the more years a child spent on welfare, the lower the child’s IQ. A similar study by Mary Corcoran and Roger Gordon of the University of Michigan concluded that the more welfare income a family received while a boy was growing up, the lower the boy’s earnings as an adult.

The devastating societal consequences of family breakdown cannot be overstated. Father-absent families—black and white alike—generally occupy the bottom rung of America’s economic ladder. According to the U.S Census, in 2008 the poverty rate for single parents with children was 35.6%; the rate for married couples with children was 6.4%. For white families in particular, the corresponding two-parent and single-parent poverty rates were 21.7% and 3.1%; for Hispanics, the figures were 37.5% and 12.8%; and for blacks, 35.3% and 6.9%. According to Robert Rector, senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, “the absence of marriage increases the frequency of child poverty 700 percent” and thus constitutes the single most reliable predictor of a self-perpetuating underclass. Articulating a similar theme many years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Nothing is so much needed as a secure family life for a people to pull themselves out of poverty.”

Children in single-parent households are burdened not only with economic, but also profound social and psychological, disadvantages. As a Heritage Foundation analysis notes, youngsters raised by single parents, as compared to those who grow up in intact married homes, are more likely to be physically abused; to be treated for emotional and behavioral disorders; to smoke, drink, and use drugs; to perform poorly in school; to be suspended or expelled from school; to drop out of high school; to behave aggressively and violently; to be arrested for a juvenile crime; to serve jail time before age 30; and to go on to experience poverty as adults. According to the National Fatherhood Initiative, 60% of rapists, 72% of adolescent murderers, and 70% of long-term prison inmates are men who grew up in fatherless homes. With regard to girls in particular, those raised by single mothers are more than twice as likely to give birth out-of-wedlock, thereby perpetuating the cycle of poverty for yet another generation.

The calamitous breakdown of the black family is a comparatively recent phenomenon, coinciding precisely with the rise of the welfare state. Throughout the epoch of slavery and into the early decades of the twentieth century, most black children grew up in two-parent households. Post-Civil War studies revealed that most black couples in their forties had been together for at least twenty years. In southern urban areas around 1880, nearly three-fourths of black households were husband-or father-present; in southern rural settings, the figure approached 86%. As of 1940, the illegitimacy rate among blacks nationwide was approximately 15%—scarcely one-fifth of the current figure. As late as 1950, black women were more likely to be married than white women, and only 9% of black families with children were headed by a single parent.

During the nine decades between the Emancipation Proclamation and the 1950s, the black family remained a strong, stable institution. Its cataclysmic destruction was subsequently set in motion by such policies as the anti-marriage incentives that are built into the welfare system have served only to exacerbate the problem. As George Mason University professor Walter E. Williams puts it: “The welfare state has done to black Americans what slavery couldn’t do, what Jim Crow couldn’t do, what the harshest racism couldn’t do. And that is to destroy the black family.” Hoover Institution Fellow Thomas Sowell concurs: “The black family, which had survived centuries of slavery and discrimination, began rapidly disintegrating in the liberal welfare state that subsidized unwed pregnancy and changed welfare from an emergency rescue to a way of life.”

Just as welfare policies discourage marriage and the formation of stable families, they also discourage the development of a healthy work ethic. As Heritage Foundation scholar Michael Franc noted in 2012: “[T]he necessity of phasing out [welfare] benefits as incomes rise brings a serious moral hazard. In many cases, economists have calculated, welfare recipients who enter the work force or receive pay raises lose a dollar or more of benefits for each additional dollar they earn. The system makes fools of those who work hard.” In testimony on Capitol Hill, Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Kentucky) concurred that although federal welfare programs “are designed to alleviate poverty while promoting work,” collectively they have “an unintended side effect of discouraging harder work and higher earnings.” “The more benefits the government provides,” he said, “the stronger the disincentive to work.” Yet another Capitol Hill witness, Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin)—herself a former welfare recipient—acknowledged in her oral testimony: “I once had a job and begged my supervisor not to give me a 50-cents-an-hour raise lest I lose Title 20 day care.” The same work disincentive came into play when Moore contemplated the health coverage she was receiving through Medicaid. “I would want to work if in fact I didn’t risk losing Medicaid,” she said.


  1. Hoover Institution senior fellow Thomas Sowell writes: “Never had there been such a comprehensive program to tackle poverty at its roots, to offer more opportunities to those starting out in life, to rehabilitate those who had fallen by the wayside, and to make dependent people self-supporting…. The War on Poverty represented the crowning triumph of the liberal vision of society—and of government programs as the solution to social problems.”
  2. For instance, “a 1 percent increase in the welfare-dependent population in a state increases the number of births to single mothers by about 0.5 percent,” and “an increase in AFDC benefits by 1 percent of average income increases the number of births to single mothers by about 2.1 percent.”
  3. The marriage penalties that are embedded in welfare programs can be particularly severe if a woman on public assistance weds a man who is employed in a low-paying job. Consider the hypothetical case, as outlined in May 2006 by Urban Institute senior fellow Eugene Steuerle, of a single mother with two children who earns $15,000 and enjoys an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) benefit of approximately $4,100. If she marries a man earning $10,000, thereby boosting the total household income to $25,000, the EITC benefit, which decreases incrementally for every dollar a married couple earns above a certain level, would drop precipitously to $2,200. Similarly, consider the case (also outlined by Eugene Steuerle in May 2006) of a mother of two children who earns $20,000 and thus qualifies for Medicaid. If she marries someone earning just $6,000, resulting in a combined household income of $26,000, her children’s Medicaid benefits are cut off entirely.
  4. For Hispanics, whites, and Asians, the illegitimacy rates are 53%, 26%, and 17%, respectively.

Additional Resources:

Family Breakdown and America’s Welfare System
By Willis Krumholz
October 7, 2019

Is Racism Responsible for the Problems of Black Americans? (facts about illegitimacy rates)
By Walter E. Williams
July 29, 2020

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