March 22, 2002 | WebMemo on Family and Marriage, Poverty and Inequality

Let Them Eat Their Words … Marriage Reduces Poverty

The Alternatives to Marriage Project (ATMP) and several women's groups oppose President Bush's plan to include marriage promotion in welfare reauthorization, claiming that marriage promoting policies harm more children and families than they help.

Their newly released report, "Let Them Eat Wedding Rings: The Role Of Marriage Promotion in Welfare Reform," comments on the misguided attempts to end poverty by using welfare dollars to promote marriage. The report falsely concludes that marriage is not an effective solution to poverty and that there is no clear relationship between marriage rates and child poverty.

This is quite to the contrary. In fact, studies show that the fastest way to escape poverty is to get married. On the contrary, the fastest way into poverty is divorce. The reason: two incomes are better than one. Or in the case where a spouse is unemployed, one income is better than none. A child born and raised outside of marriage will spend 51 percent of his childhood in poverty. By contrast, a child born inside marriage and raised by both parents in an intact marriage will spend only 7 percent of his childhood in poverty. And a child raised by a never-married mother is more than 7 times more likely to be poor than a child raised in an intact marriage. Children who grow up with absent fathers are also more likely to drop out of school, become addicted to drugs, have a child out-of-wedlock, or end up in prison. But instead of embracing these findings, women's groups such as the ATMP choose to repudiate them, in an attempt to preserve their own "marriage to the government."

The report further suggests that welfare policies should not discriminate on the basis of marital status. In reality, the welfare system discriminates against married-couple families by penalizing single mothers who choose to free themselves from the cycle of dependency and marry. Welfare programs penalize marriage and reward single parenthood because of the inherent design of all means-tested programs. In a means-tested program, the benefits are reduced as non-welfare income rises. Thus, under any means-tested system, a mother will receive greater benefits if she remains single than if she is married to a working husband. Welfare not only serves as a substitute for a husband, it actually penalizes marriage because a low-income couple will experience a significant drop in combined income if they marry. In order to encourage marriage, welfare policies should not discriminate against married couple families, the type of household most beneficial to children.

These studies illustrate the importance of encouraging healthy marriages and two-parent married families as a major goal of welfare reform. Which is why the President's plan directs up to $300 million in block grants to states for programs that encourage healthy, stable marriages. These programs include pre-marital education and counseling, as well as research and technical assistance into promising approaches that work.

Too many Americans have been injured by helping hand of the state. The welfare system has become the enemy of individual effort and responsibility, with dependence passed from one generation to the next. Overall caseloads increased substantially over the last 30 years. Between 1965 and 1995, federal and state spending on the poor increased from around $40 billion to more than $350 billion a year. Yet, during the same 30-year period, we've made virtually no progress in reducing child poverty. Perhaps it's time to try something else. Perhaps it's time to change the system that rewards failure and punishes success; that encourages dependency and illegitimacy and discourages marriage and work.

Many welfare recipients will concur. In fact, the majority of former welfare families feel that it is more rewarding to be a responsible citizen than a welfare client; it is better to be a breadwinner respected by your family. And despite what ATMP believes, most women don't want to be married to the government. They want to be free to make their own decisions, choose their own destiny, and make their children's lives better - without the government encroachment. Raising children by themselves is an incredibly difficult job. In many cases, their lives and their children lives would be better if they and the fathers of their children were united in marriage. The government is no substitute for a spouse.

Which is why welfare reform's priorities should be the reduction of dependency and poverty through work and marriage. We must face the impact of deteriorating marriage forthrightly. There is no better time to start than now. So let the ATMP eat their words. After all, it's only themselves they're hurting.

Jennifer Garrett is a researcher in domestic policy studies for The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Jennifer Garrett Research Associate