Welfare Dependency - Cognitive Classes and Social Behavior - The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray

The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life - Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray (1996)

Part II. Cognitive Classes and Social Behavior

Chapter 9. Welfare Dependency

People have had reason to assume for many years that welfare mothers are concentrated at the low end of the cognitive ability distribution, if only because they have generally done poorly in school. Beyond that, it makes sense that smarter women can more easily find jobs and resist the temptations of welfare dependency than duller ones, even if they have given birth out of wedlock.

The link is confirmed in the NLSY. Over three-quarters of the white women who were on welfare within a year of the birth of their first child came from the bottom quartile of IQ, compared to 5 percent from the top quartile. When we subdivide welfare recipients into two groups, “temporary” and “chronic,” the link persists, though differently for the two groups.

Among women who received welfare temporarily, low IQ is a powerful risk factor even after the effects of marital status, poverty, age, and socioeconomic background are statistically extracted. For chronic welfare recipiency, the story is more complicated. For practical purposes, white women with above-average cognitive ability or above-average socioeconomic background do not become chronic welfare recipients. Among the restricted sample of low-IQ, low-SES, and relatively uneducated white women who are chronically on welfare, low socioeconomic background is a more powerful predictor than low IQ, even after taking account of whether they were themselves below the poverty line at the time they had their babies.

The analyses provide some support for those who argue that a culture of poverty tends to transmit chronic welfare dependency from one generation to the next. But if a culture of poverty is at work, it seems to have influence primarily among women who are of low intelligence.

Apart from whether it causes increased illegitimacy, welfare has been a prickly topic in the social policy debate since shortly after the core welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was created in the mid-1930s. Originally AFDC was a popular idea. No one in the community was a likelier object of sympathy than the young widow with small children to raise, and AFDC seemed to be a way to help her stay home with her children until they were old enough to begin taking care of her in their turn. And if some of the women going on AFDC had not been widowed but abandoned by no-good husbands, most people thought that they should be helped too, though some people voiced concerns that helping such women undermined marriage.

But hardly anyone had imagined that never-married women would be eligible for AFDC. It came as a distressing surprise to Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet member and a primary sponsor of the legislation, to find that they were.1 But not only were they eligible; within a few years after AFDC began, they constituted a large and growing portion of the caseload. This created much of the general public’s antagonism toward AFDC: It wasn’t just the money, it was the principle of the thing. Why should hardworking citizens support immorality?

Such complaints about welfare go far back into the 1940s and even the 1930s, but, at least from our perspective in the 1990s, it was much ado about a comparatively small problem, as the next figure shows. After a slow and meandering rise since the end of World War II, the welfare caseload was still less than 2 percent of families when John E Kennedy took office. Then, as with so many other social phenomena, the dynamics abruptly changed in mid-1960s. In a concentrated period from 1966 to 1975, the percentage of American families on welfare nearly tripled. The growth in the caseload then stopped and even declined slightly through the 1980s. Welfare rolls have been rising steeply since 1988, apparently beginning a fourth era. As of 1992, more than 14 million Americans were on welfare.

The welfare revolution


Sources: U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1975, Table H 346-367; annual data published in the Social Security Bulletin.

The steep rise in the welfare population is obviously not to be explained by intelligence, which did not plummet in the 1960s and 1970s. More fundamental forces were reshaping the social landscape during that time. The surging welfare population is just one outcropping among others summarized in Part II of trouble in American society. In this chapter, the theme will be, as it is elsewhere in the book, that as society changes, some people are especially vulnerable to the changes—in this instance, to events that cause dependence on welfare. We show here that low intelligence increases a white mother’s risk of going on welfare, independent of the other factors that might be expected to explain away the relationship.


It has not been an openly discussed topic, but there are many good reasons for assuming that welfare mothers come mainly from the lower reaches of the distribution of cognitive ability. Women on welfare have less education than women not on welfare, and chronic welfare recipients have less education than nonchronic recipients.2 Welfare mothers have been estimated to have reading skills that average three to five years below grade level.3 Poor reading skills and little schooling define populations with lower-than-average IQ, so even without access to IQ tests, it can be deduced that welfare mothers have lower-than-average intelligence. But can it be shown that low IQ has an independent link with welfare itself, after taking account of the less direct links via being poor and being an unwed mother?4

By a direct link, we mean something like this: The smarter the woman is, the more likely she will be able to find a job, the more likely she will be able to line up other sources of support (from parents or the father of the child), and the more farsighted she is likely to be about the dangers of going on welfare. Even within the population of women who go on welfare, cognitive ability will vary, and the smarter ones will be better able to get off.

No database until the NLSY has offered the chance to test these hypotheses in detail for a representative population. We begin as usual with a look at the unadorned relationship with cognitive class.

Use of welfare is uncommon but not rare among these white mothers, as the table below shows. Overall, 12 percent of the white mothers in the NLSY received welfare within a year of the birth of their first child; 9 percent had become chronic recipients by our definition of chronic welfare recipients (meaning that they had reported at least five years of welfare income). Overall, 21 percent of white mothers had received assistance from AFDC at some point in their lives.5 The differences among the cognitive classes are large, with a conspicuously large jump in the rates at the bottom. The proportion of women in Class IV who became chronic welfare recipients is double the rate for Class III, with another big jump for Class V, to 31 percent of all mothers.

Which White Women Go on Welfare After the Birth of the First Child?

Percentage of Mothers Who Went on AFDC Within a Year of First Birth

Cognitive Class

Percentage of Mothers Who Became Chronic Welfare Recipients

aSample = 17, with no one qualifying as a chronic welfare recipient. Minimum sample reported: 25.


I Very bright



II Bright



III Normal



IV Dull



V Very dull



Overall average


This result should come as no surprise, given what we already know about the higher rates of illegitimate births in the lower half of the cognitive ability distribution (Chapter 8). Women without husbands are most at risk for going on welfare. We also know that poverty has a strong association with the birth status of the child. In fact, it may be asked whether we are looking at anything except a reflection of illegitimacy and poverty in these figures. The answer is yes, but a somewhat different “yes” for periodic and for chronic welfare recipiency.


First, we ask of the odds that a woman had received welfare by the end of the first calendar year after the birth of her first child.6 In all cases, we limit the analysis to white women whose first child was born prior to 1989, so that all have had a sufficient “chance” to go on welfare.

If we want to understand the independent relationship between IQ and welfare, the standard analysis, using just age, IQ, and parental SES, is not going to tell us much. We have to get rid of the confounding effects of being poor and unwed. For that reason, the analysis that yielded the figure below extracted the effects of the marital status of the mother and whether she was below the poverty line in the year before birth, in addition to the usual three variables. The dependent variable is whether the mother received welfare benefits during the year after the birth of her first child. As the black line indicates, cognitive ability predicts going on welfare even after the effects of marital status and poverty have been extracted. This finding is worth thinking about, for it is not intuitively predictable. Presumably much of the impact of low intelligence on being on welfare—the failure to look ahead, to consider consequences, or to get an education—is already captured in the fact that the woman had a baby out of wedlock. Other elements of competence, or lack of it, are captured in the fact that the woman was poor before the baby was born. Yet holding the effects of age, poverty, marital status, and parental SES constant, a white woman with an IQ at the 2d centile had a 47 percent chance of going on welfare, compared to the 8 percent chance facing a white woman at the 98th centile.

Even after poverty and marital status are taken into account, IQ played a substantial role in determining whether white women go on welfare


Note: For computing the plot, age and either SES (for the black curves) or IQ (for the gray curves) were set at their mean values. Additional independent variables of which the effects have been extracted for the plot: marital status at the time of first birth, and poverty status in the calendar year prior to the first birth.

The socioeconomic background of these mothers was not a statistically significant factor in their going on welfare.

The Role of Education

We cannot analyze welfare recipiency among white women with a bachelor’s degree because it was so rare: Of the 102 white mothers with a B.A. (no more, no less) who met the criteria for the sample, 101 had never received any welfare. But we can take a look at the high school sample. For them, low cognitive ability was as decisive as for the entire population of NLSY white mothers. The magnitude of the independent effect of IQ was about the same, and the effect of socioeconomic status was again statistically insignificant. The other variables swept away all of the connections between welfare and social class that seem so evident in everyday life.


Now we focus on a subset of women who go on welfare, the chronic welfare recipients. They constitute a world of their own. In the course of the furious political and scholarly struggle over welfare during the 1980s, two stable and consistent findings emerged, each having different implications: Taking all the women who ever go on welfare, the average spell lasts only about two years.7 But among never-married mothers (all races) who had their babies in their teens, the average time on welfare is eight or more years, depending on the sample being investigated.8

The white women who had met our definition of chronic welfare recipient in the NLSY by the 1990 interview fit this profile to some extent. For example, of the white women who gave birth to an illegitimate baby before they were 19 (that is, they probably got pregnant before they would normally have graduated from high school) and stayed single, 22 percent became chronic welfare recipients by our definition—a high percentage compared to women at large. On the other hand, 22 percent is a long way from 100 percent. Even if we restrict the criteria further so that we are talking about single teenage mothers who were below the poverty line, the probability of becoming a chronic welfare recipient goes up only to 28 percent.

To get an idea of how restricted the population of chronic welfare mothers is, consider the 152 white women in the NLSY who met our definition of a chronic welfare recipient and also had IQ scores. None of them was in Cognitive Class I, and only five were even in Class IL Only five had parents in the top quartile in socioeconomic class. One lone woman of the 152 was from the top quartile in ability and from the top quartile in socioeconomic background. White women with above-average cognitive ability or socioeconomic background rarely become chronic welfare recipients.

Keeping this tight restriction of range in mind, consider what happens when we repeat the previous analysis (including the extra variables controlling for marital status and poverty at the time of first birth) but this time comparing mothers who became chronic welfare recipients with women who never received any welfare.9 According to the figure, when it comes to chronic white welfare mothers, the independent effect of the young woman’s socioeconomic background is substantial. Whether it becomes more important than IQ as the figure suggests is doubtful (the corresponding analysis in Appendix 4 says no), but clearly the role of socioeconomic background is different for all welfare recipients and chronic ones. We spent much time exploring this shift in the role of socioeconomic background, to try to pin down what was going on. We will not describe our investigation with its many interesting byways, instead simply reporting where we came out. The answer turns out to hinge on education.

Socioeconomic background and IQ are both important in determining whether white women become chronic welfare recipients


Note: For computing the plot, age and either SES (for the black curves) or IQ (for the gray curves) were set at their mean values. Additional independent variables of which the effects have been extracted for the plot: marital status at the time of first birth, and poverty status in the calendar year prior to the first birth.

The Role of Education

White chronic welfare recipients are virtually all women with modest education at best, as set out in the next table. More than half of the chronic welfare recipients had not gotten a high school diploma; only six-tenths of 1 percent had gotten a college education. As in the case of IQ and socioeconomic status, this is a radically unrepresentative sample of white women.10 It is obviously impossible (as well as unnecessary) to analyze chronic welfare recipiency among college graduates.

The women for whom socioeconomic background was the main risk factor for being chronically on welfare are those who had not finished high school For women with a high school diploma or more, IQ was more important than socioeconomic status (other things equal) in affecting the probability of becoming a chronic welfare recipient.11

Educational Attainment of White Chronic Welfare Recipients

Highest Degree


Advanced degree


B.A. or B.S.


Associate degree


High school diploma




Less than high school


Why? Apparently the women who did not finish high school and had an illegitimate child were selected for low intelligence, especially if they had the child while still in high school.12 The average IQ of these women was about 91, and analysis tells us that further variation in cognitive ability does not have much power to predict which ones become chronic welfare cases.13 Instead, for this narrowly screened group of women, family background matters more. Without trying to push the analysis much further, a plausible explanation is that for most white American parents, having a school-aged child go on welfare is highly stigmatizing to them. If the daughter of a working-class or middle-class couple gives birth to a baby out of wedlock while still in high school, chances are that her parents will take over support for the new baby rather than let their daughter go on welfare. The parents who do not keep their school-aged daughter off welfare will tend to be those who are not deterred by the stigma or who are themselves too poor to support the new baby. Both sets of parents earn low scores on the socioeconomic status index. Hence what we are observing in the case of chronic welfare recipiency among young women who do not finish high school may reflect parental behavior as much as the young mother’s behavior.14

Other hypotheses are possible, however. Generally these results provide evidence for those who argue that a culture of poverty transmits chronic welfare dependency from one generation to the next. Our analysis adds that women who are susceptible to this culture are likely to have low intelligence in the first place.


As social scientists often do, we have spent much effort burrowing through analyses that ultimately point to simple conclusions. Here is how a great many parents around America have put it to their daughters: Having a baby without a husband is a dumb thing to do. Going on welfare is an even dumber thing to do, if you can possibly avoid it. And so it would seem to be among the white women in the NLSY. White women who remained childless or had babies within marriage had a mean IQ of 105. Those who had an illegitimate baby but never went on welfare had a mean IQ of 98. Those who went on welfare but did not become chronic recipients had a mean IQ of 94. Those who became chronic welfare recipients had a mean IQ of 92.15 Altogether, almost a standard deviation separated the IQs of white women who became chronic welfare recipients from those who remained childless or had children within marriage.

In Chapter 8, we demonstrated that a low IQ is a factor in illegitimate births that cannot be explained away by the woman’s socioeconomic background, a broken family, or poverty at the time the child was conceived. In particular, poor women of low intelligence seemed especially likely to have illegitimate babies, which is consistent with the idea that the prospect of welfare looms largest for women who are thinking least clearly about their futures. In this chapter, we have demonstrated that even among women who are poor and even among those who have a baby without a husband, the less intelligent tend to be the ones who use the welfare system.

Two qualifications to this conclusion are that (1) we have no way of knowing whether higher education or higher IQ explains why college graduates do not use welfare—all we know is that welfare is almost unknown among college-educated whites, but that for women with a high school education, intelligence plays a large independent role—and (2) for the low-IQ women without a high school education who become chronic welfare recipients, a low socioeconomic background is a more important predictor than any further influence of cognitive ability.

The remaining issue, which we defer to the discussion of welfare policy in Chapter 22, is how to reconcile two conflicting possibilities, both of which may have some truth to them: Going on welfare really is a dumb idea, and that is why women who are low in cognitive ability end up there; but also such women have little to take to the job market, and welfare is one of their few appropriate recourses when they have a baby to care for and no husband to help.