August 6, 2002

August 6, 2002 | Commentary on Family and Marriage

Dollars for Daycare, Pennies for Marriage?

Getting Congress to approve $4.3 billion in federal childcare subsidies -- atop the $12 billion in federal and state funds we already spend annually -- wasn't hard. In fact, it was so easy that some members want to add $8 billion more.

Few lawmakers question spending this large sum, despite numerous studies that show institutionalized daycare -- even that considered "high quality" -- is a poor substitute for a stay-at-home parent or other relative. Indeed, it appears in many cases to do genuine harm.

One highly publicized 2001 study found that children who spend long periods in daycare -- 26 hours a week or more -- were almost three times more likely to be overly aggressive and disobedient than those who spend less time in daycare. Researchers at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (an arm of the National Institutes of Health) tracked more than 1,300 children in 10 cities over 10 years and found the ones who spent more than 26 hours a week in daycare were "more likely to bully, fight with, or act mean to other children."

Other studies show that children in daycare get sick more often and have trouble developing emotional attachments. Daycare has also been connected to a variety of behavioral, developmental, health and social problems later in life, including divorce rates twice those of people cared for by an at-home parent.

Not surprisingly, those who dislike such unwelcome conclusions challenge these studies vigorously. But even those who swear by daycare usually admit that a full-time parent is the best caregiver. Which prompts the question: Why have Bush administration officials caught so much grief over their desire to spend $300 million promoting marriage?

Critics call the proposal sexist, elitist, even racist. But promoting marriage would produce measurable benefits for all Americans -- and for a lot less money.

According to "Why Marriage Matters" -- a recent report co-authored by 13 leading social-science scholars, including University of Maryland professor William Galston, who was a domestic policy adviser to the Clinton administration -- children in intact, two-parent families earn more, learn more and get into trouble less. They also tend to lead longer, healthier, happier lives, avoid alcohol and drug abuse and endure significantly less physical, mental and psychological abuse. Because of this, they generally require fewer government-paid social services such as remedial learning, criminal justice, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, depression counseling, and medical-, income- and housing-assistance programs.

Mothers benefit, too. According to "Why Marriage Matters," the risk of becoming victims of domestic abuse or even random street crime decreases dramatically for women when they marry. They're also happier, learning more and earning more than their unmarried counterparts. A recent Heritage Foundation study found that if marriage rates had continued at 1960 levels, the child-poverty rate would be nearly one-third less than what it is today.

Even married fathers fare better. "Why Marriage Matters" shows they earn 40 percent more, on average, than single men of similar ages and professional experience. They also tend to lead happier, healthier lives with fewer alcohol or drug-abuse problems. They avoid trouble with the law and stay employed.

Surveys show that a clear majority of unwed couples, particularly those with children, want to get married. But in many cases they can't, or won't, because of roadblocks put up by the same institution that thinks nothing of spending about $40 on daycare for every $1 the president proposes to spend on marriage: Congress.

Half of unwed mothers are living with their baby's father when they give birth, and another third are still romantically involved. Nearly three-fourths say there is a better than even chance they eventually will marry the father. But many low-income parents refrain from doing so when they learn that marrying will cause them to lose more than $8,000 per year in government benefits.

Contrary to stereotypes, most unwed fathers want to be involved in their children's upbringing. Four in five provide financial support during pregnancy. By promoting marriage, we encourage this healthy interest in their children.

All of society would benefit if more couples would marry and stay married. Rules regarding welfare benefits and eligibility should, at the very least, be changed to cease working against this goal. Other than the moms -- many of whom now earn as much or more than their counterparts -- who benefits from our spending billions of dollars on childcare? Not children. Not society. Not America.

Patrick Fagan, a former family counselor, is the FitzGerald research fellow in family and cultural affairs at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), where Jennifer Garrettis a researcher in domestic policy.

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Originally Appeared on June 30th in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal