Health Care

The Negative Impact of Multi-Generational Welfare

February 12, 2014

J. Scott Moody, Wendy Warcholik, Ph.D.

Government welfare programs were originally designed to be temporary to help people get back on their financial feet. Today, that is no longer true. For instance, SoonerCare, Oklahoma’s Medicaid system, imposes no time limits on the recipients as long as they meet various income-eligibility requirements. As we have discussed in these pages previously (“Oklahoma Growing Increasingly Dependent on Medicaid,” April 2013), Oklahoma already has an unhealthy dependency on SoonerCare.

As a consequence, it is very easy for families to become trapped in multi-generational welfare, which robs them of personal responsibility and self-reliance. There is a multitude of anecdotal evidence that multi-generational welfare in fact exists. Now, new academic research by economists Gordon Dahl, Andreas Kostol, and Magne Mogstad verifies this reality.

In a new study (“Family Welfare Cultures,” National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper No. 19237, July 2013), the authors examine family welfare cultures by looking at Norway’s disability insurance system. Norway’s homogeneous demographic makeup helps to keep the focus on welfare policies. The authors found “strong evidence that welfare use in one generation causes welfare use in the next generation.”

What really makes this study remarkable is that the authors firmly trust they have found more than a simple correlation. Instead, they believe they have found a causal link between parents dependent on welfare and their children following in their footsteps.

The causal link they found can be summed up succinctly: children learn from their parents. The authors “find suggestive evidence … in favor of children learning from a parent’s experience” with government welfare. In other words, children are conditioned by their parents’ welfare experience that significantly increases the chances that they too will end up dependent on welfare.

More troubling, the study also found that “consistent with this increase in adult children’s welfare dependency, we find that parental DI (disability insurance) receipt decreases the probability that a child will work or pursue higher education.” Therefore, income-based welfare, like Medicaid, becomes a self-fulfilling, multi-generational prophecy—low-income parents on welfare hamper the ability of their children to achieve a better life for themselves.

Of course, the question remains, how big of a problem is this for Oklahoma? To better answer that question, let’s examine a relatively new data series that shows the number of births on Medicaid as a percent of all births for each state.

As shown in Table 1, this percentage ranges from a whopping 71 percent in Louisiana to a low of 27 percent in Virginia, with a median value of 45 percent. (The data come from the National Governors Association as reported by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. The table is an amalgam of several years because not all states report the number of births on Medicaid every year. To fill the gap, we used the highest percentage reported between 2003 and 2009, the latest year of available data. Note: we used the median Montana value because the maximum value appears to have been misreported.)

Unfortunately, Oklahoma is in the very high range, with 62 percent of all births on SoonerCare, the fourth highest in the country. In absolute numbers, that represents, on average, approximately 30,000 babies that are born right into Oklahoma’s welfare system each and every year. These data strongly suggest that Oklahoma has a very significant multi-generational problem in the Medicaid system.


In conclusion, this analysis should give Oklahoma’s policymakers yet another reason to stop expanding the Medicaid rolls. (For starters, how about a moratorium on advertising for SoonerCare?) Oklahoma’s very high number of births on Medicaid strongly suggests that multi-generational welfare is a very real problem with dire outcomes for the parents and especially the children. Breaking this cycle will not be easy, and compounding it by increasing Medcaid rolls would be a step in the wrong direction.

OCPA research fellow J. Scott Moody (M.A., George Mason University) has worked as a public policy economist for more than 13 years. Formerly a senior economist at the Tax Foundation and a senior economist at the Heritage Foundation, he has twice testified before the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. His work has appeared in Forbes, CNN Money, State Tax Notes, The Oklahoman, and several other publications.

OCPA research fellow Wendy P. Warcholik (Ph.D., George Mason University) formerly served as an economist at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, and was the chief forecasting economist for the Commonwealth of Virginia’s Department of Medical Assistance Services. She is a co-creator (with J. Scott Moody) of the Tax Foundation’s popular “State Business Tax Climate Index.”