April 11, 2002 | Commentary on Family and Marriage
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
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
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
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
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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