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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


Aside from the expense of evaluations, skeptics might raise several objections to addressing the male work problem through mandatory work programs.

Could government afford to create the work programs needed to enforce work by men, even if they proved effective? Government jobs are costly. That was one reason why welfare reform largely placed recipients in jobs in the private sector. Only Wisconsin and New York City invested heavily in public positions. In New York, work experience jobs cost $43 million in 1999, or about $1,400 per filled slot per year excluding child care.88 Such expense might be particularly difficult for child support. That system currently costs government more to run than it saves in welfare costs, although economies in other programs may offset these losses.89

The costs of an AW- or CEO-style program taken to scale—$2.4 billion or $4.8 billion a year—are not inconsiderable, but they are far lower than the costs of welfare reform. The expense would also be offset by several benefits or economies. One is higher child support collections, though these are difficult to calculate because PFS—the closest evaluation of such a program—did not include a costbenefit analysis. Another saving would be in incarceration, which is enormously expensive. On average, American states spent $25,487 to house each prison inmate in 2005.90 Savings here would hinge on whether and how far work programs reduced recidivism, thus allowing ex-offenders to be released earlier. Prison savings are the chief reason to think that mandatory work programs could be affordable.91 Finally, higher work levels would translate into hard-toestimate reductions in other social problems (welfare, unwed pregnancy, foster care) and their costs. These cost issues imply that further evaluations of men’s work programs, including those now under way, should include cost-benefit as well as impact assessments.

Would it be politic to create new programs for nonworking men? Many authors note that nonworking men are the most feared and least popular of all the poor. They are not viewed as “deserving,” like the working poor or the elderly, nor do they care for innocent children as welfare mothers do. But to suggest that this negative view bars government from helping them is to misunderstand public attitudes. While the voters do disapprove of the way many poor people live, they still support helping them, provided programs promote good behavior. The desire to save money is secondary, contrary to what many academics believe. 92 Welfare reform is enormously popular simply because it promotes work. The billions spent on child care, health care, and wage subsidies to accomplish that end more than outweighed the savings from caseload reductions, yet no objections were raised.

Proposals for men’s work programs must be carefully framed. The main reason to support them cannot be that the men are unfortunate, or that the community would benefit in practical ways if they went to work, such as through lower crime, although both things are true. Still less can government seem to be negotiating with the nonworkers over the terms on which they will work, as might appear if they were offered only higher wages or wage subsidies. Rather, work policies must offer nonworkers the same terms as other low-skilled people who already work. Above all, programs must directly affirm the work norm. They must demand work of men in the same direct way that welfare did for its recipients, and there must be clear gains in work. Past programs that tried to do that were popular, and improved programs for men could also be.93

The greatest practical obstacle to my proposals probably is that most child support and corrections agencies, which would be the means to enforce work, do not now regard employment as a central goal. One reason child support has not seriously addressed the work problem is that its routines are modeled on middle-class absent fathers who usually have the means to pay their judgments. Child support agencies thus tend to assume that nonpaying fathers can pay if pressed. This view fails to credit the serious employment and income problems faced by about a third of the nonpayers. Parents’ Fair Share found it difficult to work closely with child support personnel because they were reluctant to ease pressure on the men.94 More recently, some child support agencies have done more to help disadvantaged fathers pay their judgments.

Another implementation problem is that child support usually lacks welfare’s ability to mandate work on its own authority. Typically, the agency cannot remand a father to a work program without a judicial order. Roughly half the states have experimented with work programs for child support defaulters, most of them with enforcement aspects like PFS. But the programs appear small and largely separate from the main child support operation.95

Corrections agencies, for their part, see their mission as punishing offenders, not helping them succeed after they leave prison. The parole system exists to enforce parole rules. It insists that parolees work, as that is among the rules in most states. But officers typically see achieving work as the convicts’ responsibility rather than their own. Neither prison nor parole focuses on what happens to men after they leave supervision. This mind-set is one reason why supported work programs for prisoners failed during the 1960s and 1970s. The current experimental work programs for ex-offenders report similar problems working with parole officers today. To solve the work problem, as well as reduce recidivism, the corrections system must be made more accountable for how its clients turn out.96

In the short term, the implementation problem can be minimized by keeping work programs separate from ordinary child support and corrections operations. The work mission would be vested in a separate organization that was optimized around it. Child support and corrections still have the power to incarcerate, the final sanction behind getting the men to participate and work. But they would be moved into the background, their authority invoked only as a last resort.

In the end, however, fundamental change can occur only when the regular child support and corrections agencies fully incorporate the work mission. This was what happened with welfare reform. The idea of putting welfare mothers to work was pioneered in experimental programs, but then mainstream welfare adopted that goal as its own. In the extreme case—Wisconsin—welfare was entirely rebuilt around employment. Only then did the world change for welfare families, producing the large diversion effects seen in the past decade.97 Similarly here, nonworking men will probably not take available jobs in visibly higher numbers until child support and corrections agencies consistently press them to do so. When they do, on the welfare precedent, many nonworking men will go to work voluntarily, not only those immediately subject to sanctions. As with welfare reform, work effects could be much larger than program evaluations under the old conditions might suggest.

Administrative change, in turn, finally rests on politics. Successful work programs must first be developed, but then they must be implemented across the country by politicians and administrators who believe in them. That means not just driving new bureaucratic routines down to the ground, but changing expectations in the culture. Elected leaders, speaking for the public, must credibly state that work will now be seriously expected of men with debts to society. Work will also be newly rewarded. The community will share with jobless men the burdens and the benefits of change. The goal of the new work programs is not to blame or to exclude jobless men. Rather, it is to change lives and integrate the jobless into society. If that commitment is clear, on past precedent the poor will respond and work levels will rise.