Poor Mothers, Cash Support, and the Custodial State

The New York Times is reporting on an experiment that finds that providing poor mothers with cash stipends for the first year of their children’s lives appears to have changed the babies’ brain activity in ways associated with stronger cognitive development. This finding, the Times emphasizes, carries potential implications for safety net policy.

“This is a big scientific finding,” said Martha J. Farah, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, who conducted a review of the study for the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. “It’s proof that just giving the families more money, even a modest amount of more money, leads to better brain development.”

I have been telling students for a quarter-century that it is a well known fact that poverty is associated with poor brain development and lower intelligence across the life-course, with downstream effects on academic performance, initiative, resourcefulness, and a myriad of other life chances. It follows that cash support should ameliorate these effects of poverty—if that support is carefully monitored to make sure it goes towards the cognitive development of children.

I have no problem with making sure babies are taken care of. If a parent cannot provide the necessary support, then there is a role for government. For those who are disparaging of social welfare, consider that cash support can be a smart investment; babies with poor brain development become not merely a burden on society, with poor academic achievement and poor labor force attachment, but a menace, as low intelligence is associated with low frustration tolerance, juvenile delinquency, and adult criminal behavior.

At the same time, we need to have a serious conversation about why mothers are poor in the first place and why, while recognizing that there are absolutely more poor white mothers than black mothers, there are proportionally so many more poor black mothers than white mothers. Indeed, as we will see, that there are absolutely more poor white mothers than black mothers, but a much smaller percentage of white mothers who are poor relative to black mothers is a revealing fact, one that cannot be explained away by social class or racism.

Class effects are important to consider. Part of the explanation for poverty generally is the systematic generation of inequality inherent in the capitalist mode of production. This the result of capitalist accumulation, i.e., the exploitation of labor, and its discontents. But this does not explain all of it. There is a big difference in poverty rates between women who are married and women who not married. Having a man in the house reduces household poverty, even among low-wage working families. Thus the fact of poor mothers is substantially a function of the decline in marriage and the rise of its substitution: the welfare state, or, to capture its function, the custodial state.

Perhaps this was an unintended effect, but the custodial state incentivizes single-parent households. Social welfare means that a woman no longer needs to marry a man for financial support. Nor does she need to work herself. The state provides support for her children. Children born in neighborhoods with high rates of single-mother households have limited access to working adults as role models. From these circumstances, a culture of idleness emerges. The downside of cash support is the maintenance of conditions requiring cash support.

Because of racial disparities in poverty, black mothers are proportionately more likely than white mothers to need cash support for their babies. The dynamic of the custodial state thus disproportionately effects the fate of black women and their children. Social class cannot explain racial disparities; capitalism is not to blame for this development. Since systemic racism was dismantled alongside the rise of the custodial state, neither does racism explain the disparities. The fact of racial disparities does not explain itself.

We have to turn to culture and the role the custodial state plays in generating culture associated with poverty. It’s not only because of black overrepresentation in poverty areas that these disproportionalities exist. The proportion of out-of-wedlock births for blacks is more than 70 percent, whereas for whites less than 30 percent. In light of this, without a comprehensive program of restoring the black family, it’s hard to imagine cash support will help the situation of black children over the long haul. What alternatives to cash support might we pursue that can reduce child poverty?

How the black family became overrepresented among those families dependent upon the state is a complex question, one requiring a study of the history of segregation, internal migration patterns, the interaction of the split-labor market with the emergence of transnationalism, especially the off-shoring of low-wage manufacturing and the importation of cheap foreign labor. The historical record indicates that these developments are the result of measures largely advocated by Democrats, who have attempted to address the racially disparate outcomes of progressive policy with more progressive policy, in this case the custodial state. The custodial state established the conditions for the emergence of a culture associated with high rates of out-of-wedlock births. However, while blame is important to reckon, we need to focus now on how to unwind the mess Democrats and progressive policy have made of the black family. We need to get fathers back in the home and married to the mothers of their children.

The problem of the disintegration of the black family is not just child poverty and its effects on brain development. Father absence is associated with higher rates of conduct disorder, juvenile delinquency, and adult crime than we see in father-present households. So while it may be true that part of the reason for overrepresentation in crime by blacks is due to poor brain development caused by poverty (this may explain the differences we see in measurable intelligence on IQ tests between blacks and whites that in the past has been attributed to genetically-based racial differences), this cannot explain all of it. The absence of fathers is the absence of discipline and role models for boys. In the absence of fathers, boys seek solidarity in gangs and surrogate fathers in their leaders.

Small brains, low intelligence, rapid maturation, behavioral problems, inadequate moral development, differential associations—all these are associated with the decline in marriage and father-presence.

These effects have implications for one of our chief concerns: the problem of racial disparities in the American penitentiary system. I’m sure readers know by now that black men are overrepresented in prison compared to whites. There is a call from the social justice crowd to reform the system equitably, which means reducing the racial disproportionality in admissions and sentencing. This is a laudable goal.

However, as I have shown in numerous essays, racial disparities in imprisonment reflect racial disparities in serious criminal involvement and are not the result of a racially unjust criminal justice system. Thus calls for racial equity would result in practice in effective anti-white racism (according to the terms of antiracism) by involving, relatively speaking, punishing whites more harshly than blacks by punishing blacks less harshly. This absurd solution to the problem of racial disparities in crime is cover for the failure of progressive policy to address the problems confronting black Americans. (We might also consider whether those failures are functional to the perpetuation of progressive politics, something I have suggested in past essays.)

The solution to the problem of racial disproportionally in America’s prisons ultimately lies in solving the problem of racial disproportionality in involvement in serious criminal offending. Reducing racial disproportionality in criminal offending means fostering neighborhood conditions conducive to proper brain development and moral training. It is unlikely that cash support to poor mothers will foster these conditions. Indeed, it is likely that cash support will contribute to the problem of the culture of idleness that undermines initiative and the two-parent family by perpetuating the effects of the custodial state. These communities need investments, but these investments need to come in different forms. I could make a long list of investments, but the first of them would be jobs and work requirements.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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