October 5, 1999 | Testimony on Welfare and Welfare Spending , Family and Marriage

The Fathers Count Act of 1999

Testimony before the Sub-committee on Human Resources / Committee on Ways and Means


I wish to thank the sub-committee for the opportunity to testify on the Fathers Count bill. The views I will express are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Heritage Foundation.

Marriage in our society is dying. Today, a third of all births occur outside of wedlock. Among blacks, the rate is nearly 70 percent. The collapse of marriage lies at the core of underclass culture and is the root cause of a vast array of overlapping social problems including crime, welfare dependence, child poverty, drug use, eroded work effort and school failure.

Yet rather than seeking to combat marital collapse, the government subsidizes it. At present, the federal and state governments spend around $150 billion a year on means-tested subsidies to single parents. These subsidies promote single parenthood and undermine marriage. By contrast, the government spends some $150 million a year on programs designed to reduce illegitimacy and increase marriage. Thus, the government spends $1,000 subsidizing single parenthood for every $1.00 it spends to restore marriage and reduce illegitimacy. Moreover, obtaining even the $150 million in pro-marriage funding was a severe uphill struggle.

This $1,000 to $1.00 ratio is no accident, but reflects the value system which pervades our nation's welfare and social service establishment. Since the fervent assault on the Moynihan Report in 1963, the professional welfare industry has regarded the institution of marriage with indifference or contempt. William Ryan, in his influential book, Blaming the Victim, expressed this view most clearly, saying that "only a few old diehards cling to old myths [concerning the value of marriage]."

When pressed, the welfare and social service industry may now pay weak lip service to marriage, but the underlying attitude of indifference or hostility remains. This attitude explains why, despite the fact that the welfare reform legislation of 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), identified reducing illegitimacy as a paramount goal, few if any states use TANF surplus funds in active programs aimed at reducing illegitimacy and increasing marriage.

The "Fathers Count" bill, like PRWORA, identifies restoring marriage as a paramount goal, but once again, this lacks operational teeth. The structure of the programs and the role of formal bureaucracies in selecting grantees ensure that only a tiny fraction of these funds will go to organizations with a strong commitment to marriage. Instead, nearly all of the funding will be devoted to providing job training to absent fathers and to collecting child support.

Title One

Title One of the bill contains the bulk of funding with $150 million over four years. It is true that one of the stated goals of Title One is to promote marriage. However, none of the six active preference criteria to be used in selecting grants relate even remotely to marriage. Instead, the emphasis is on job training, cooperation with child support enforcement, and paternity establishment.

Moreover, the eligibility criteria of Title One are incompatible with a focus on reducing illegitimacy and increasing marriage. Young men may receive services under the bill only after they have fathered a child out-of-wedlock or made a married girl pregnant, generally out-of-wedlock. By contrast, a pro-marriage strategy would focus on preventing out-of-wedlock pregnancies from occurring and would encourage marriage before the pregnancy and non-marital birth happen.

If the overall goal is to reduce illegitimacy and to increase and strengthen marriage, then we need to realize that interventions may be planned at many different stages in the individual's life cycle. These stages include:

Stage One: Before the initiation of sexual activity in the teen or early adult years.

Stage Two: During the early stages of non-marital sexual activity.

Stage Three: While a young woman is cohabiting with a boyfriend.

Stage Four: When a young woman cohabiting with a boyfriend becomes pregnant and intends to bear the child.

Stage Five: When a young unmarried mother with a newborn infant is cohabiting or in a relationship with the child's father.

Stage Six: When the mother and father's relationship has broken down, and the father leaves the household.

Stage Seven: When the absent father fails to pay child support.

Stage Eight: When the absent father fails to pay child support, and the mother is involved with other men.

A comprehensive strategy to increase marriage and reduce illegitimacy would provide an overlapping series of interventions with an emphasis on stages one through five. These interventions could involve marriage education, skills building, mentoring, ad campaigns, and programs to reward marriage and the avoidance of illegitimacy. Education programs concerning the value of marriage targeted to at-risk youth in high school and middle school are particularly important.

By contrast, nearly all so-called fatherhood programs focus on stages seven and eight. But these are precisely the points which have the least likelihood of producing a stable married home environment for the child. This is no accident. These programs were explicitly designed with the goals of providing job training to absent fathers and collecting child support. Most of the organizations involved share the mindset of most of the social service industry ranging from indifference to overt hostility towards marriage. Many of these organizations have been reluctant even to mention the word marriage.

While the interventions most likely to increase marriage and reduce illegitimacy will occur in stages one through five, Title One of Fathers Counts prohibits funding to any interventions in stages one through three. Title One does depart from conventional practice by requiring some programs to recruit participants in stage four (during pregnancy of the mother). However, the fact remains that nearly all the activity funded under title one will occur after an illegitimate birth has occurred; the bulk will focus on providing largely ineffectual job training to absent fathers long after the relationship with the mother has collapsed. By focusing its efforts after an out-of wedlock pregnancy or birth has occurred, Fathers Count bill provides disaster relief when what is needed is disaster prevention.

Misstating the Objective

Thus, nearly all of the activities funded under Title One will focus on preparing and assisting absent fathers to pay more in child support. Why this inordinate focus on child support? What better outcomes for the child born out-of-wedlock can we expect if more child support is collected? Will the child's rate of future criminal activity and incarceration drop significantly? Will the child's mental health and psychological stability improve? Will the school drop-out rates and rates of drug and alcohol abuse decline? Will the child's prospects of giving birth out-of-wedlock herself as an adult drop?

Of course, improved child support collection will have a nugatory effect on all of these crucial life outcomes. In other words, child support has, at best, a marginal effect on the well-being of the child. By contrast, restoration of marriage will have the most profound beneficial effects on the child's life and on the culture of the underclass. Why then, the pre-occupation with child support and the neglect in fostering marriage? The answer lies in the institutional hostility to marriage I alluded to earlier.

Bureaucratic Selection of Grantees

Another substantial problem with Title One is the dominant role it gives the federal bureaucracy in selecting grantees. There is no group of people with greater hostility to the institution of marriage than the professional bureaucracy at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Yet the Washington bureaucratic class will have a huge role in selecting grantees. Funding conservative pro-marriage groups would represent an enormous break in the social service status quo. This departure from the status quo will not occur if the allocation of funding and selection of grantees is controlled by either federal or state welfare bureaucracies. Instead, funds must be directly targeted to pro-marriage groups.

Title Two and Targeted Funding

However, Title Two of the bill is substantially different from Title One. Title Two actually targets funds to two groups with a historic commitment and track record in support of marriage. Assuming that the HHS bureaucracy actually allows these funds to flow to the targeted groups, Title Two will fund critically needed pro-marriage activities. Thus, the Title Two funding could provide the first significant step in a national campaign to restore marriage and save the underclass.

Unfortunately, the funds allocated to pro-marriage groups under Title Two will constitute only $5 to $10 million over four years. By contrast, total funding under the Fathers Counts bill, including Title Three will be around $230 million. Thus, the funds which will actually flow to pro-marriage activities and pro-marriage groups will be only two to four percent of the total.

This is simply insufficient. If the bill is to have a substantial pro-marriage component, this can only be accomplished by increasing the funds allocated to the committed pro-marriage groups targeted in Title Two. Pro-marriage groups and activities should receive at least a quarter of the funding under this bill, or roughly $50 million over four years, rather than the current $5 to $10 million.

Title Three

Title Three of the bill provides $65 million for more job training. At a time when state governments are sitting on nearly $6 billion in surplus TANF funds, this expenditure is simply a waste of the taxpayer' money.


The most pressing goal facing our nation is strengthening marriage and reducing illegitimacy. The collapse of marriage is at the center of the problem of the underclass. Any policy which seriously seeks to redeem the underclass must begin by restoring marriage.

Unfortunately, the Fathers Count bill will not strengthen marriage. Although some 2 to 4 percent of its funds will probably flow to groups with a historic track record of fostering marriage, the remaining bulk of the funds will be used to provide job training of marginal effectiveness and to increase child support payments. Nearly all of the organizations which will receive funds will share the ethos which has characterized the U.S. social service industry since the denunciation of the Moynihan report in 1963. That ethos ranges from complete indifference to outright hostility toward marriage as an institution.

Even worse, the Fathers' Count bill will undermine efforts to restore marriage for two reasons. First, the bill will decisively draw attention and scarce funds away from the real issue of marriage. Second, because of its emphasis on child support pass through, the bill is likely to result in an indirect increase in welfare benefits flowing to single mothers. This will increase rather than reduce illegitimacy.

Regrettably, those policymakers truly interested in a restoration of marriage should seek a substantial alteration to the Fathers Count Act.

About the Author

Robert Rector
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society