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October 8, 2003

Lords of the Ring

By

From time to time, some academic crackpot argues that we should require anyone who wants children to get a government license.

The idea of creating a government bureaucracy to decide who's worthy of parenthood sounds crazy, and it is. But there was a time when people did need a license to have children -- a marriage license. Government didn't require it, though; our culture did. Men and women who had children outside of wedlock were viewed as immoral and irresponsible. Judgmental? Unfair? That depends on your criteria, but it proved an effective deterrent to out-of-wedlock births and prevented much more suffering than it caused.

This same imperative also endowed the engagement ring with special significance. It meant the woman had convinced her husband-to-be that her attractiveness was more than skin-deep. And it meant the man had shown he could be trusted to provide for a family. Through this ring, both had, in effect, qualified each other for a parenthood license.

That was how society built itself, couple by solid couple: With families begun by consenting adults who got to know each other well before committing themselves publicly to each other for life.

But marriage wasn't just a license to have children -- and here's the tough part for a sexually "liberated" age such as ours -- it was the license you needed for sexual activity. Today, with 48 percent of American high-schoolers saying they've had sex at least once before graduating, this has certainly changed. What hasn't changed is the logic behind waiting until marriage to experience sex -- that babies result from sexual encounters and that babies fare best when their parents are married to each other. Children need both parents.

Today, about one out of every three children in America is born to a woman who isn't married to the baby's father. Only 28 percent of all children conceived will reach their 18th birthday with their parents still married and living together. What does the future hold for the other 72 percent? A review of the major research on this topic makes a compelling case for President Bush's proposal to spend $300 million to encourage intact families.

The evidence shows the children of intact two-parent families are rarely aborted, earn more and learn more, are far less likely to go to prison or become addicted to drugs, and are far more likely to lead happier, healthier and longer lives. These children are seven times less likely to grow up poor than children born to single mothers. Conversely, children of never-married mothers are far more likely to bear children out of wedlock, to drop out of school and to live in poverty their entire lives.

These findings underscore the good sense behind the president's plan to encourage marriage. Today, the federal government spends $1,000 to address the problems caused by out-of-wedlock births for every $1 it spends to encourage marriage. President Bush's proposal would change that to $4 for every $1,000 spent on welfare, corrections, government-funded health care and other social programs.

If we're to spend $100 billion annually to address the social ills caused by out-of-wedlock births, why not spend a fraction of that amount ($300 million) to try to cut these costs and, more importantly, alleviate the suffering they represent?

It's important to note that the image of the people targeted here -- teen mothers who barely know their child's father -- is largely myth. The average unwed mom is 22. The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a four-year project of Princeton University and Columbia University, shows that half live with the father, 82 percent report being "romantically involved" with him, and 73 percent say they have at least a 50/50 chance of eventually marrying.

There is good news, too, on the incidence of domestic violence in these "fragile families": Only 5 percent of unmarried mothers said the child's father was violent, and only 6.7 percent said the fathers had drug or alcohol problems.

The decline in marriage rates since the 1960s has contributed heavily to the high levels of child poverty recorded over the last three decades. Heritage Foundation research shows that restoring marriage to its 1960 levels would rescue more than 3 million children from poverty. It would cut the child poverty rate from 15.7 percent to 11.2 percent.

The poor will always be with us, but we could reduce their ranks -- and ease their suffering -- if we'd resurrect the cultural norm of demanding marriage before having children. It's time for a course correction. Emphasizing marriage before parenthood is an excellent place to start.

Patrick Fagan is the FitzGerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues at The Heritage Foundation.

Distributed nationally on the Scripps-Howard wire

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