Stronger Marriages, Stronger Society

COMMENTARY Marriage and Family

Stronger Marriages, Stronger Society

Jan 2nd, 2003 3 min read

Visiting Fellow

As much of the world parties and welcomes in the new year with great fanfare, my family will most likely enter it quietly and thoughtfully like we do nearly every year. We'll watch the ball drop in Times' square, toast each other and say a prayer of thanks for the many blessings we enjoy - especially the fact that we have a whole, close-knit family.

During the holiday/new-year season, my thoughts frequently go to those less fortunate. I often wonder why, when it's so obvious that individuals thrive in secure families, there are so many broken homes. I think about how the government has or hasn't acted to protect our citizens, and what they've done to strengthen our families in order to build a better America.

This year, I'm particularly thinking a lot about welfare reform and how measures over the last few years have helped create a better life for those once dependent on the government for their very existence. Thankfully, when the welfare reform law that was passed in 1996 came up for renewal about two months ago, lawmakers didn't heed the advice of liberal critics who wanted to see it dismantled. They refused to jettison the formula that has enabled thousands of Americans to leave the welfare rolls over the last six years - namely, work in exchange for aid. Liberals insisted that it would doom millions of children to a life of poverty. Yet there are 2.8 million fewer poor children today than there were in 1996.

Across the nation, welfare caseloads have been cut in half. And for the best reason imaginable: because the people who used to get the aid are working. Indeed, employment among poor single mothers has risen by at least 50 percent. (And this in the midst of an economy that is still experiencing sluggish growth.) Meanwhile, the poverty rate of the single mothers who make up such a disproportionate number of welfare recipients has dropped by nearly a third and is now at the lowest point in U.S. history. The poverty rate for black children has fallen at a similar rate and also is at the lowest point in U.S. history. Why would we ever want to go back to the way things used to be?

Lawmakers, who could be passing more reform measures, seem to be at a standstill. Instead of forging ahead with more welfare reform, they've merely extended the law as it's written until early next year. In short, they're acting like so many of us do when faced with a difficult decision to make: They're procrastinating. Yet it is possible to make the law better - by emphasizing marriage. Research by Heritage Foundation analysts Patrick Fagan, Robert Patterson and Robert Rector (the primary architect of the 1996 law) shows why marriage education is the next logical step in federal welfare reform.

"More than 80 percent of long-term child poverty occurs among children reared in never-married or broken families," they note in their latest study. "The welfare system exists primarily as a response to the collapse of marriage. Each year, the nation spends more than $200 billion on means-tested welfare aid for low-income families with children: 75 percent of this spending goes to single-parent families."

Data from a federal government study called the "National Longitudinal Survey of Youth" show that children raised by never-married mothers are nine times more likely to live in poverty than children raised by two parents in an intact marriage. In the face of such sobering statistics, it would appear the height of irresponsibility for federal lawmakers not to make marriage education part of welfare reform. But try telling that fact to our liberal friends. They argue that President Bush is wrong to want to spend $300 million to promote wedded life.

According to feminist scholar Stephanie Coontz, it would be unwise to make marriage education "a significant component of anti-poverty policy." In American Prospect magazine, Robert Kuttner cautions against "shotgun welfare betrothals."

Yet extensive research by Heritage researchers on a variety of the programs the government would likely fund shows the programs to be highly effective at heading off bad marriages before they begin, providing couples with the communications tools necessary to participate in happy marriages. The programs even help couples with problems such as substance abuse and alcoholism.

So, as we face a new year, it makes sense to reflect on the timeless truths that generations before us knew to be true: Individuals do better emotionally, financially, educationally and socially when they are part of an intact family. Stronger marriages and families create a stronger society. The best gift Congress could give the nation this year are policies that protect and strengthen the fundamental unit of our land.

-Reprinted with permission of the Internet newspaper .

Rebecca Hagelin is Vice President for Communications and Marketing at The Heritage Foundation.