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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Toward a Mandatory Work Policy for Men
Lawrence Mead


The nation has successfully raised employment among poor mothers through welfare reform. The share of all poor mothers with children who worked jumped from 44 percent in 1993 to 64 percent in 1999, while the share working full time, year-round rose from 9 to 17 percent. Those figures fell back to 54 and 16 percent by 2005, partly because of the 2001 recession, but were still well above the level before welfare reform.1

Meanwhile, however, work levels among lowincome men—many of them the absent fathers of welfare families—remain low and falling. In 2005, only 42 percent of workingaged men under the poverty line reported any employment at all, only 16 percent of them full time year-round.2 Partly for this reason, work levels for the overall poor population have not improved. How might work levels for low-skilled men be raised in the same manner as those of welfare mothers? That is the question I address here.

The success of welfare reform in putting poor mothers to work was unprecedented. Until Congress passed the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, government efforts to increase work among the poor had fallen far short of expectations. The problem, in part, was the tendency of researchers and policymakers to see the challenge too much in economic terms. Viewing poor adults as lacking in “human capital,” they had sought to solve the problem by raising the skills of the poor, through education and training or by improving their incentives to work. But experience with numerous experimental welfare work programs during the 1980s and 1990s proved that it was also necessary to enforce work. Welfare reform succeeded where other programs had failed largely because it linked new wage and child care subsidies with clearer demands that people work in return for aid. That combination, plus superb economic conditions during the 1990s, propelled welfare mothers into the working world as never before.

Much of the effect of welfare reform, it is important to note, came through “diversion.” As reform took hold during the 1990s, welfare mothers got a message that work was now expected of them. In response, many took jobs even before they were told to do so. Many more single mothers went to work without going on welfare at all. Change was driven by a political dynamic wider than social policy. Because of this, the impact of reform exceeded what one would have expected based on the experimental welfare work programs conducted since the 1980s.3

Policymakers should use a similar strategy to raise employment among poor men. For men, there is no broad benefit structure like welfare to use as a basis for promoting work, but other institutions can serve. One such is child support enforcement; another, the criminal justice system. Both are already heavily involved in the lives of many lowincome men. In this article, I describe the problem of nonwork by poor men and suggest its causes, stressing male psychology. I argue that benefit-oriented solutions, such as higher wages, will not suffice. They must be combined with measures to enforce work. I outline a possible mandatory work program that would be linked to child support and criminal justice, and I propose federal demonstrations, similar to those that preceded welfare reform, to develop such programs further. Finally, I consider objections about the cost, politics, and implementation of such programs.