An easy way to make it into the papers in Arizona is to come up with a list ranking the state's standing in various indicators of well-being. Kids Count, the Children's Rights Council, the Corporation for Enterprise Development, all make news telling Arizonans how bad off they are compared with other states. However, if you look closely at the lists measuring child welfare, several remarkable features emerge. First, put side-by-side, the lists developed by groups across the spectrum are quite similar. The teenage birth rate, single parent families, high school dropouts, juvenile crime-observers on the left and right agree that these are things society should worry about.
Second, the indicators of well-being typically included on the lists have more to do with how people behave than their material condition. One reason for this is the phenomenal improvement in the American standard of living over the past 50 years. In 1930, two-thirds of American household did not own a radio, and half did not own a refrigerator. Now 96 percent of households have a color TV, and 99 percent have a refrigerator. In 1950, 30 percent of Americans still lived in houses without indoor toilets. By 1990, only 1 percent of households lacked complete plumbing. Officially poor American households have 0.56 persons per room, this is more space than the average American household had available in 1970, and the average West European household in 1980. Nearly 50 percent of poor households have air conditioning.
The focus on behavior implies that any proposed government solutions would have to be quite different than traditional welfare programs. Indeed, the evidence shows that traditional welfare makes these problems worse. A myriad of studies has looked at the effects of welfare. The consensus is that welfare has a negative effect on marriage and a positive effect on child-bearing. One study found that a 25 percent reduction in welfare benefits would lead up to a 30 percent drop in the rate of illegitimate births. As many social commentators have pointed out, children born out of wedlock and growing up in a single-parent family are more likely to suffer from retarded cognitive development, lower educational achievement, lower job attainment and increased behavior and emotional problems. They are more likely to have children out of wedlock and commit crimes.