April 11, 2002

April 11, 2002 | Commentary on Family and Marriage

Marriage: Next Step for Welfare Reform

How far we've come.

Six years ago, critics of welfare reform were predicting that poverty would increase dramatically if we asked people to work in return for government assistance. Inconveniently for them, the sky hasn't fallen.

Indeed, it's grown quite sunny. More than 4 million fewer Americans live in poverty today than did back in 1996. At the same time, welfare rolls have been cut almost in half. Two million fewer American children live in poverty, and the explosive growth of out-of-wedlock childbearing has virtually ground to a halt.

Which is why the Bush administration is, as Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson put it, ready to take the next "clear and important step" toward moving even more Americans toward self-sufficiency. That step? President Bush wants to devote $300 million for states and local communities to experiment with programs that encourage poor couples to marry -- and stay married.

What interest does government have in whether people get and stay married? Plenty, actually.

The Declaration of Independence says Americans have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And an eye-popping array of statistics prove that an excellent way for government to promote the pursuit of happiness is to encourage stable, healthy marriages.

Mothers who never marry are abused at three times the rate of married, separated and divorced couples combined. Children are six times more likely to be abused in a step-family, 13 times more likely in a family with a single mother living alone, 20 times more likely in a cohabiting natural family, and 33 times more likely if they live with their natural mother and a boyfriend who isn't their father.

Children from broken homes have more out-of-wedlock births, co-habitations and divorces. They are three times more likely to end up in jail. Statistical analysis shows that the huge differences in crime rates between white juveniles and black juveniles are not a matter of race; they can be traced mainly to the presence or absence of intact marriages between their parents.

Drug and alcohol abuse, infant mortality, mental health, abortions, teen sex -- an overwhelming number of social science studies show they pose fewer problems for children who come from intact, two-parent families.

And when it comes to promoting marriage, we're not flying blind. Early experiments have produced promising results. Chattanooga, Tenn., for example, has been using the leadership of its First Things First program to do what President Bush proposes. The city has reduced its divorce rate by 20 percent and its out-of-wedlock birth rate by 18 percent, and it's still improving the effectiveness of the program.

Marriage Savers, a faith-based program active in cities nationwide, has developed networks of congregations and civic leaders who rally communities to find ways to increase marriage and decrease divorce. In Modesto, Calif., the divorce rate has plunged nearly 48 percent since 95 pastors signed a Community Marriage Covenant in 1986. In Kansas City, Kan., the number of divorces dropped by almost 33 percent in just two years after 40 pastors signed a covenant. Across the river, in Kansas City, Mo. -- which has no covenant -- divorces increased over the same period.

The least the government can do is to stop discouraging couples from marrying. The Fragile Families Survey, conducted by Princeton and Columbia universities, found that the 83 percent of parents with out-of-wedlock children are romantically involved with each other and that most of them want to marry.

But if they do, they get walloped with a federal welfare marriage penalty -- lost Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) income and loss of other benefits -- that robs many of them of almost one-quarter of their income.

Government tosses in a few other obstacles along the way. It promotes condom giveaways, modern sex education and other initiatives that appear to condone -- indeed, facilitate -- sex outside of marriage.

In the Welfare Reform Act of 1996, Congress made clear that it wanted states to use TANF funds to strengthen marriages. Specifically, it wanted states to "encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families." So far, only four states have done so. The other 46 have done nothing.

Now, with the welfare law up for reauthorization, is the ideal time for Congress to strengthen its marriage-promoting aspects -- and to finish the good work it started half a decade ago.

Patrick Fagan a former family counselor, is the FitzGerald fellow in family and cultural issues at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy institute.

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