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Social Approval, Values, and AFDC: A Reexamination of the Illegitimacy Debate

  • Thomas J. Nechyba

This paper models the fertility decision of individuals who differ in their wage rate and their intensity of preferences for rearing children, and whose utility of having a child out of wedlock depends on the level of "social approval" associated with doing so. This social approval in turn is a function of the fraction of individuals in previous generations that chose to have children out of wedlock. The model is a straightforward extension of the typical rational choice model that motivates much of the empirical literaturea literature that has cast doubt on a strong link between AFDC and illegitimacy. However, the model introduces elements from epidemic models that many have in mind when arguing for such a link. As a result, the predictions of this extended model are consistent with empirical findings while at the same time linking the rise in illegitimacy solely to government welfare programs. Specifically, a program similar to AFDC is introduced into an economy with low illegitimacy rates, and a transition path to a new steady state is calculated. Along the transition path, observed cases of illegitimacy are rising among both the poor and nonpoor despite the fact that AFDC payments are held constant or even falling. The simultaneous trends of declining real welfare benefits and rising illegitimacy over the past two and a half decades are therefore not inconsistent with the view that illegitimacy might be caused primarily by government welfare policies. Although this paper certainly does not claim to prove such a link, it does suggest that current empirical approaches have been focused too much on an artificially narrow model and have thus given rise to results that can be differently interpreted in the context of a more natural model. At the same time, the model also suggests that welfare reform aimed at reducing the incentives for poor women to have out-of-wedlock births may not be as effective as policy makers who believe in a causal link between AFDC and illegitimacy might suspect.

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Article provided by University of Chicago Press in its journal Journal of Political Economy.

Volume (Year): 109 (2001)
Issue (Month): 3 (June)
Pages: 637-666

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Handle: RePEc:ucp:jpolec:v:109:y:2001:i:3:p:637-666
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