Welfare, Illegitimacy and Academic Failure: America’s True "Race to the Bottom"

A great deal has been written about the cost of welfare, rise of illegitimacy, decline in public education and racial differences in academic achievement. Very little has been written about the link between welfare and those phenomena.

They are all direct results. Welfare affects a process known as maternal-infant attachments that is the psychophysiologic foundation of early infant brain development and future IQ. Welfare is the X factor in many of society’s ills.

This essay will address that connection. We will also examine the politically taboo subject of racial differences in test scores viewed through the prism of a social scientist. It is my hope this will stimulate a much-needed public conversation about what ails the nation and what steps are needed to get it back on track. In a word, the answers are more marriage, not welfare checks and more fathers, not federal programs.

The Great Society forever changed the national culture. It institutionalized welfare and turned our traditional social order on its head. Since Lyndon Johnson announced his War on Poverty fifty years ago, marriage has virtually disappeared among minorities. Johnson’s vision is America’s nightmare.

Among Blacks, wedlock plummeted from 85% to 26%. Out of wedlock births skyrocketed from 22% to 90%.  Among Hispanics, marriage dropped to 45%. Illegitimate births rose to 53%. [1] Marriages among Whites declined from 93% to 51%. Illegitimacy increased from 5% to 29%. [2] Is this the portrait of a Great Society?

The results of the nation’s report card, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), mirror the rates of illegitimacy: the higher the rate, the lower the test scores. In 2003, the illegitimacy among Black females without a high school diploma was 92.1%. [3] The average NAEP score for Black students was 33 points lower than those for White students. In 2013, illegitimacy among Blacks was 75-80%. The performance gap between their scores and those of White students was 31. The performance gap between Hispanic and White students was 30 points in 2003 and 31 points in 2013. [4]

National School Lunch Program (NSLP) data are an indicator of welfare enrollment. The percentages of students eligible for free lunch or reduced fee lunch by race mirror those for out of wedlock births. 82% of urban Hispanic students and 80% of urban Black students are eligible for the government’s national free lunch program. The data for suburban and rural communities as well as small towns are very similar.

This is a national social plague. 50% of 8th grade students qualify for NSLP in many states. [5] 62% of urban 4th grade students qualify as well. The numbers of students raised by unwed mothers on welfare should give the citizenry pause. They are a reflection of how far our nation and culture have fallen. They are also a vision of our future.

NAEP scores in mathematics reveal significant performance gaps between students who qualify for free lunch and those who do not. Test scores for 4th grade White students ineligible for NSLP are 247 for 2003, 250 for 2005 and 252 for 2007. The scores for their eligible White classmates are 229, 233 and 235. The performance gap is seventeen-points. [6]

The same relationship holds true in the 8th grade. Scores for ineligible White students are 291, 292 and 295. The performance gap for their NSLP White eligible peers averaged 20 points. Corresponding scores for Black students are 262, 264 and 268 with a fifteen-point performance gap for NSLP eligible students. [6] Is the difference surprising? Could it be otherwise?

In 2013, students who were eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch had an average NAEP score that was 27 points lower than students who were not eligible. The performance gap in 2003 was 17 points. Poverty in single parent families is four times higher than in married families with two-parents. [7]

Brain development, measured by IQ, is highly correlated with the strength of what is called maternal-infant attachment. The stronger the bond between them, the more the mother interacts, coos and plays with her baby. It is the degree of stimulation she provides that promotes development of the infant’s brain and expansion of its massive neuronal network. Simply put, the quality of mothering is critical for the development of her infant’s intelligence.

Married women have more time to cuddle, teach and play with their infants. Married women are constantly talking to their babies. One study estimated the difference to be millions of words during the first year compared to mere thousands.

English pediatrician and psychoanalyst David Winnicott called this good enough mothering. Its absence results in the infant’s failure to thrive. The brain fails to thrive as well. In the mother’s prolonged or total absence, as in abandonment, the infant can die.

Married women are more likely to be good-enough mothers. Consequently, their children tend to have higher scores on measures of intelligence or aptitude. Studies on infant brain development show significant differences between babies raised by married or single mothers. Babies of married women tested at 18 and 36 months have a significantly higher IQ.

It is the mother’s boundless love and stimulation that constitute the neurophysiological X factor that unwed mothers lack and their infants must do without. Deprived of adequate attachment during this critical period, optimal brain development fails to occur. Critical points for infant brain development, as for normal fetal development, cannot physiologically be recaptured five or ten years later in life. This is the hidden cost of welfare.

To appreciate the link between illegitimacy and poor performances, compare those of the graduates of Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, the nation’s 1st public high school for African-Americans. Founded in 1870, its graduates include the 1st Black dean of Harvard Law School, 1st Black graduate of West Point, 1st Black USN admiral, 1st Black USAF general, 1st Black appointed to the US Cabinet and two of America’s most renowned physicians. 95% of the students at Dunbar were raised in two-parent homes.

As we have outlined, the link between NAEP test scores and NSLP is welfare, specifically the derivative illegitimacy it fosters. There are 126 federally-funded programs that discourage marriage but encourage illegitimacy. Welfare contributes to the poor scores of US students on international tests. In the absence of major changes, these results will get worse. In the absence of welfare, we’ll get Dunbar.

Johnson’s war on poverty was a contemptible fraud. His goal was not to help African Americans but to buy their votes thus helping to gain and assure permanent political loyalty. Poor young minority women with little opportunity were the most vulnerable to his promise of a better life. For most, it was too seductive to refuse. Their naive pact with the government Devil has proven fatal to the African American community as to Faust.

These statistics are generational phenomena. It has taken decades to reach this point but we do not have decades to fix the problem. Welfare reform is a national emergency. My suggestion is to begin with a few basics: more marriage, not monthly EBT cards; more fathers, not federal programs. America needs to restore the time-honored traditional two-parent family.

The government spends trillions on its massive entitlement apparatus. A marriage license costs twenty-five dollars. Obama trumpets equal opportunity for all as his primary mission. Tell him to put an end to welfare. [8] Imagine the money and lives that he could save. I pray that my message will reach the right ears. It is a hopeful vision.

R. Claire Friend, MD, is the Assistant Professor, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, UC Irvine Medical Center, and the editor of the UC Irvine Quarterly Journal of Psychiatry. She is a retired psychiatrist and frequent commentator on the psychological dimensions of education and social welfare policies.


1. http://www.statisticbrain.com/marriage-statistics/

2. http://www.livescience.com/8049-college-educated-women-stay-married.html

3. http://www.cis.org/illegitimate_nation.html

4. http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/subject/publications/dst2013/pdf/2014467XL4.pdf

5. http://febp.newamerica.net/background-analysis/federal-school-nutrition-programs

6. https://www.google.com/#q=naep+test+scores+2012+of+students+eligible+for+free+lunch

7. http://www.legalmomentum.org/sites/default/files/reports/single-mother-poverty-2010.pdf


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3 replies
  1. Avatar
    Chuck O says:

    You are right Dr. Friend, the war on poverty has become a fraud. The so-called war on poverty has created a gigantic system to buy the votes of its recipients. In your article above you suggest a few basics like more marriages which of course would mean more fathers at home to raise their children. The question I have how is it how could one spend some many words to discuss the choices people make without ever mentioning “Individual Responsibility”?
    Maybe your training and your profession has required the use of really big words instead of stating the situation directly, honestly and in simple terms. I understand that Individual Responsibility is one of the conservative values that may not be promoted in CA. However, if you wish people to stop being dependent on a socialistic system, a different set of values must be introduced. I suggest that the value system that will result in the changes you suggest is that of a conservative. The values of Individual Responsibility and Smaller Government are what you have been discussing without really saying so.

  2. Avatar
    R. Claire Friend, MD says:

    The entire point of the article was the corrosive effects of GOVERNMENT policy on society and culture. Welfare removed all sense of shame and personal responsibility, particularly among the more vulnerable minority groups.
    Prior to the misguided War on Poverty, illegitimacy was 26% among Blacks and 5% among Whites. People were indeed responsible for their actions and behaved accordingly. Welfare rewarded people for mis-behavior and ir-responsibility. The results speak for themselves. Very few will turn down an easy life, even if means selling one’s soul to the Devil.
    PS: I majored in English Literature and journalism.

  3. Avatar
    Joel Klass, M.D. says:

    Excellent article that needs dissemination in political venues, school boards, and the media

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