October 25, 2002 | Executive Summary on Family and Marriage
The erosion of marriage has created enormous difficulties for children, parents, and society. Today, one child in three is born out of wedlock. Compared to children born within marriage, children born outside of marriage are overwhelmingly more likely to live in poverty, depend on welfare, and have behavior problems. They are also more likely to suffer depression and physical abuse, fail in school, abuse drugs, and end up in jail.
In response to the overwhelming evidence concerning the harmful consequences of the decline of marriage, the 1996 welfare reform law set a national goal to increase and strengthen two-parent families. To help meet that goal, President George W. Bush wants to set aside $300 million per year for specific programs to strengthen marriage as part of the reauthorization of welfare reform. These programs would teach relationship skills to unmarried couples at the time of pregnancy, with the goal of helping couples develop healthy marriages. The programs would also provide marriage-skills training to low-income married couples to help those couples improve their relationships and avoid marital breakup.
Record of Success. Critics of the President's initiative seldom attack the concept of promoting healthy marriages directly. Instead, they claim that no evidence shows that marriage education and enrichment programs work. This charge is simply false. The evidence is overwhelming:
This research demonstrates that marriage programs are effective and makes the case that marriages can do more than merely survive: They can also thrive when couples learn the skills to make their relationship work. Moreover, the research shows that the programs are effective throughout a variety of socioeconomic classes. Polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of low-income couples at risk of out-of-wedlock childbearing or marital breakup would like to participate in programs that would help them improve their relationships.
Need for Action. The collapse of marriage is a predominant factor behind high rates of child poverty, welfare dependence, and a host of other social problems. However, the welfare system has punished marriage and rewarded single parenthood for a generation. President Bush is seeking to reverse this trend by bringing fathers back into the home rather than pushing them out.
The President's marriage initiative--incorporated in the House-passed welfare bill, H.R. 4737--represents a critical first step in moving beyond the current anti-marriage welfare system. The bill would provide skills training to low-income couples to help them build and sustain healthy marriages. It would also foster experiments in reducing the anti-marriage penalties in welfare programs. If enacted, this legislation would begin the vital task of repairing the fabric of family in low-income communities.
Patrick F. Fagan is William H. G. Fitzgerald Research Fellow in Family and Cultural Issues, Robert W. Patterson is a domestic policy consultant, and Robert E. Rector is a Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.