April 1, 2004
By Melissa G. Pardue and Robert Rector
Marriage is a hot topic these days,
especially in light of President Bush's call for a constitutional
amendment to define the very concept.
It's good to see attention focused on marriage, because this vital
institution has been weakened in recent decades. Today, one child
in three is born outside of marriage. And a large portion of kids
born to married couples will see their parents divorce before their
The erosion of marriage is bad news for children and society.
Marital decline is the leading cause of child poverty and welfare
dependence in our nation. Almost two-thirds of poor children live
in single-parent homes. Three-quarters of all welfare expenditures
for children -- at a cost of $150 billion per year -- go to single
parents. Children raised without a father in the home are
substantially more likely to suffer emotional problems, fail in
school, do drugs, commit crimes, and end up on welfare as
Clearly, dads and wedding rings are good for kids. But, ironically,
the current welfare system penalizes couples who marry and rewards
moms for staying single.
Recognizing the value of marriage to children and adults, President
Bush has proposed a new "healthy marriage initiative." The Senate
will consider the president's plan as part of welfare reform
legislation later this month.
The cost of the president's proposal is modest, only one penny to
promote healthy marriage for every $5 government currently spends
subsidizing single parents. Still, that small investment can pay
large dividends down the road. By fostering better life decisions
and stronger relationship skills, marriage-promotion programs can
increase child well being and adult happiness. They also can reduce
child poverty and welfare dependence.
All participation in the marriage program would be voluntary. The
program would provide training in relationship skills to low-income
couples interested in marrying. It also would experiment with
reducing the anti-marriage penalties in welfare.
The program would teach relationship skills to unmarried couples
before they have children, with a focus on delaying pregnancy until
a couple has made a commitment to healthy marriage. It also would
intervene at the "magic moment" of a child's birth, when both
father and mother are most open to marrying.
Surveys show that about 75 percent of non-married expectant mothers
are romantically involved with their child's father at or around
the time of the child's birth. Most of these young adult couples
express positive attitudes about marriage and say they hope to
marry in the future. Yet relatively few will, in fact, marry. Most
split up a few years after the child's birth.
But the marriage program would offer these low-income couples a
better chance at the future. By teaching couples how to deal with
relationship problems, the program will increase their odds of
marrying and staying together.
If we can help even some of these couples build happy marriages,
we'll end up saving far more in welfare payments than we'll have
invested in marriage training.
Still, opponents are doing everything they can to derail the
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich claims the plan wouldn't work
because there aren't enough "marriage-worthy men" in low-income
Not true. As noted, nearly three-quarters of non-married mothers
are cohabiting or romantically involved with their children's
fathers at the time of the birth. The median income of these
non-married fathers is $17,500. Some 70 percent of poor single
mothers would be lifted out of poverty if they simply married the
fathers of their children.
Other critics charge the program would increase domestic violence
by encouraging women to remain in dangerous relationships.
Yet studies show marriage-skills training reduces domestic
violence, by helping women avoid dangerous and counterproductive
relationships. And in general, domestic violence is more common in
cohabiting relationships than in marriage: Never-married mothers,
for example, are twice as likely to experience domestic violence
than are mothers who have married.
Marriage benefits everyone. The social-science research shows that
married adults are happier and more productive on the job, earn
more, enjoy better physical and mental health, and outlive their
It's an institution worth preserving -- and promoting.
Pardue is a policy analyst and Robert Rector is a senior
research fellow in domestic policy at The Heritage
Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune Wire.
Marriage is a hot topic these days, especially in light of President Bush's call for a constitutional amendment to define the very concept.
Melissa G. Pardue
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