June 18, 2001 | Commentary on Family and Marriage, Religion and Civil Society

Time for Instruction in the Three W's

As a society, we´ve long promoted the three R´s -- reading, writing and ´rithmetic -- as basic tools to help our children succeed in life. But once they become adults, we need to stress something just as fundamental. Call it the three W´s: work, wedlock and worship.

That´s because work, wedlock and worship are the foundation on which any healthy society thrives. The less adults practice the three Ws, the more social problems the United States has, from out-of-wedlock pregnancies to
drug abuse to crime.

The folks who run the faith-based charities that President Bush has been touting know this well, but for those who need a refresher course in the three Ws, here´s a primer:

  • Work: It seems obvious, doesn´t it? The first step in escaping poverty is to work. But for decades, many of our nation´s welfare recipients (and the people who administer the welfare rolls) couldn´t seem to grasp this simple truth. And why should they? Under the old system, they got money for doing nothing.

Tommy Thompson, the new secretary of health and human services, changed that while he was governor of Wisconsin with a simple rule: To get welfare, you either worked, quickly learned how or got nothing. By creating this new social contract, the number of people receiving cash assistance in his state dropped from 98,000 in the mid-1980s to about 7,000 at the end of 1999, and it´s still falling. Thanks to Mr. Thompson, thousands of Wisconsin´s young adults have taken the first step to independence.

  • Wedlock: By every measure, marriage is the healthy state for adults with children. For instance, studies show the children of divorced parents, on average, score below their peers from married families in reading, spelling and math. They also are more likely to repeat a grade and to drop out of school. Children born and raised out of wedlock fare even worse.

Remaining married also means being wealthier. Family income typically plummets after a divorce, declining anywhere from 28 percent to 42 percent, according to a study by University of Michigan professor Mary Corcoran. Among families that weren´t poor before a divorce, the income plunge can hit 50 percent.

Marriage affects crime as well: Another study tracked 6,400 boys over 20 years and found that those without fathers in the home are 2 to 3 times likelier to do jail time. Not that girls are immune: Those from intact families are far less likely to skip school or abuse drugs and alcohol. In Wisconsin, juvenile incarceration rates for children of divorced parents are 12 times higher than for children in stable, two-parent families.

  • Worship: It´s a scientific fact -- worshippers receive many blessings. A study by Harvard University labor economist Richard Freeman showed that inner-city poor children whose families worshiped weekly are the ones most likely to make it into the middle class as adults. But more than a person´s capacity to work is improved by worship. So, too, is the likelihood of virtue, which helps people avoid life-wrecking vices such as drug and alcohol abuse. Worship also helps instill steady work habits.

The National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the most reliable survey available to track how the youth of the late 1970s are faring today, tells a similar story. It shows that those from intact families that worshiped weekly have incomes significantly higher than those who come from broken families that did not worship God.

Worshipping God has myriad other benefits. Those who worship weekly have a far smaller chance of divorcing. Addicts tend to kick their habits more surely and more quickly through religious conversion. There are major health benefits as well, and now more than 50 medical schools around the country offer courses illustrating the connection.

In short, work, wedlock and worship are the pillars of a strong social infrastructure. Put all three in the lives of parents and children, and they thrive. And the benefits compound for their communities and the nation. Policy-makers at the federal, state and local level should recognize this and ensure that their rhetoric, policies and programs support all three. Of course, the three Ws can´t be forced on us by legislation, as, say, a tax policy can. But they can be encouraged and taught -- just like the three R´s.

Patrick Fagan, a former family counselor, is the FitzGerald fellow in family and cultural issues at The Heritage Foundation.

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Originally published in The Washington Times (06/18/01)