How a family allowance could end poverty

Like Clinton and Bush, Obama has emphasized marriage as a solution to poverty, often appearing to diagnose the problem culturally, specifically to blacks. But while the government has spent hundreds of millions in aid to the poor, coaxing them to marry these last few years, the needle hasn’t budged. And even Charles Murray, intellectual architect of the Clinton repeal, has given up his prescription, which was based on the old argument that welfare breeds “illegitimacy” (which plateaued before the reform). Despite greater intellectual devotion to marriage—across class lines—a legal marriage faces a higher risk of failure in capitalist America, which spends the least on its citizens, than a common-law marriage does in socialist Sweden, which spends the most.

It is doubtful that cash assistance to the poor will be a major vote-getter anytime soon. But all three of the last presidents have made real efforts in the family-policy area to institute or expand paid leave. This is a tacit acknowledgment of the rise of the “sandwich generation,” the majority of middle-class parents, who now work, raise kids, and care for aging or sick family members under conditions of increasing economic hardship. Since the late 1990s, Democrats have formally and informally attempted to become policy leaders on this issue, as with so many in the past. Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee, has recently suggested this might be a centerpiece of her administration as the first woman president. And yet, with her right-leaning economic views, she is not likely to push America to join the rest of the world in adopting child stipends, too—as Moynihan, her predecessor in the Senate, did 50 years ago.

But, with dual-income households now the overwhelming norm for the core electorate, the constituency for a diverse national family policy has never been larger. And for tens of millions of poor, working, and middle-class families, a universal program granting cash support for the most economically difficult years of parenthood would be a major relief. Economic pressure, in any case, is only likely to grow for a population that is already severely overworked, underpaid, and much deserving of a break.