Senior Research Fellow
Domestic Policy Studies
The Heritage Foundation
Before the Sub-committee on Human Resources
Of the Committee on Ways and Means
U.S. House of Representatives
My name is Robert Rector.I am a Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. The views I express in this testimony are my own, and should not be construed as representing any official position of The Heritage Foundation.
The erosion of marriage during the past four decades has had large-scale negative effects on both children and adults: It lies at the heart of many of the social problems with which the government currently grapples. Nearly 80 percent of long term child poverty occurs in broken or never-married families.Each year government spends over $200 billion on means-tested aid to families with children; three quarters of this aid flows to single parent families.Children raised without a father in the home are more likely to experience: emotional and behavioral problems, school failure; drug and alcohol abuse, crime, and incarceration.The beneficial effects of marriage on individuals and society are beyond reasonable dispute, and there is a broad and growing consensus that government policy should promote rather than discourage healthy marriage.
In response to these trends, President George W. Bush has proposed-as part of welfare reform reauthorization-the creation of a pilot program to promote healthy and stable marriage. Funding for the program would be small-scale: $300 million per year. This sum represents one penny to promote healthy marriage for every five dollars government currently spends to subsidize single parenthood. Moreover, this small investment today could result in potentially great savings in the future by reducing dependence on welfare and other social services.
The following are important points about the healthy marriage initiative:
Today, nearly one-third of all American children are born outside marriage. That's one out-of-wedlock birth every 35 seconds. Of those born inside marriage, a great many children will experience their parents' divorce before they reach age 18.More than half of the children in the United States will spend all or part of their childhood in never-formed or broken families.
The collapse of marriage is the principal cause of child poverty in the United States. Children raised by never-married mothers are seven times more likely to live in poverty than children raised by their biological parents in intact marriages. Overall, approximately 80 percent of long-term child poverty in the United States occurs among children from broken or never-formed families.
It is often argued that strengthening marriage would have little impact on child poverty because absent fathers earn too little. This is not true: The typical non-married father earns $17,500 per year at the time his child is born. Some 70 percent of poor single mothers would be lifted out of poverty if they were married to their children's father. According to data from the Princeton Fragile Families and Child Well-being Survey-a well-known survey of couples who are unmarried at the time of a child's birth. If the mothers remain single and do not marry the fathers of their children, some 55 percent will be poor. However, if the mothers married the fathers, the poverty rate would drop to 17 percent. (This analysis is based on the fathers' actual earnings in the year before the child's birth.)
The growth of single-parent families has had an enormous impact on government. The welfare system for children is overwhelmingly a subsidy system for single-parent families. Some three-quarters of the aid to children-given through programs such as food stamps, Medicaid, public housing, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), and the Earned Income Tax Credit-goes to single-parent families. Each year, government spends over $150 billion in means-tested welfare aid for single parents.
Growing up without a father in the home has harmful long-term effects on children. Compared with similar children from intact families, children raised in single-parent homes are more likely to become involved in crime, to have emotional and behavioral problems, to fail in school, to abuse drugs, and to end up on welfare as adults.
Finally, marriage also brings benefits to adults. Extensive research shows that married adults are happier, are more productive on the job, earn more, have better physical and mental health, and live longer than their unmarried counterparts. Marriage also brings safety to women: Mothers who have married are half has likely to suffer from domestic violence as are never-married mothers.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the benefits of marriage to families and society, the sad fact is that, for more than four decades, the welfare system has penalized and discouraged marriage. The U.S. welfare system is currently composed of more than 70 means-tested aid programs providing cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services to low-income persons. Each year, over $200 billion flows through this system to families with children. While it is widely accepted that the welfare system is biased against marriage, relatively few understand how this bias operates. Many erroneously believe that welfare programs have eligibility criteria that directly exclude married couples. This is not true.
Nevertheless, welfare programs do penalize marriage and reward single parenthood because of the inherent design of all means-tested programs. In a means-tested program, 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 she would if she were married to a working husband. Welfare not only serves as a substitute for a husband, but it actually penalizes marriage because a low-income couple will experience a significant drop in combined income if they marry.
For example: A typical single mother on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families receives a combined welfare package of various means-tested aid benefits worth about $14,000 per year. Suppose the father of her children has a low-wage job paying $16,000 per year. If the mother and father remain unmarried, they will have a combined income of $30,000 ($14,000 from welfare and $16,000 from earnings). However, if the couple marries, the father's earnings will be counted against the mother's welfare eligibility. Welfare benefits will be eliminated (or cut dramatically), and the couple's combined income will fall substantially. Thus, means-tested welfare programs do not penalize marriage per se but, instead, implicitly penalize marriage to an employed man with earnings. The practical effect is to significantly discourage marriage among low-income couples.
This anti-marriage discrimination is inherent in all means-tested aid programs, including TANF, food stamps, public housing, Medicaid, and the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food program. The only way to eliminate the anti-marriage bias from welfare entirely would be to make all mothers eligible for these programs regardless of whether they are married and regardless of their husbands' earnings. Structured in this way, the welfare system would be marriage-neutral: It would neither reward nor penalize marriage.
Such across-the-board change, however, would cost tens of billions of dollars. A more feasible strategy would be to experiment by selectively reducing welfare's anti-marriage incentives to determine which penalties have the biggest behavioral impact. This approach is incorporated in the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative.
In recognition of the widespread benefits of marriage to individuals and society, the federal welfare reform legislation enacted in 1996 set forth clear goals: to increase the number of two-parent families and to reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing. Regrettably, in the years since this reform, most states have done very little to advance these objectives directly. Out of more than $100 billion in federal TANF funds disbursed over the past seven years, only about $20 million-a miniscule 0.02 percent-has been spent on promoting marriage.
Recognizing this shortcoming, President Bush has sought to meet the original goals of welfare reform by proposing a new model program to promote healthy marriage as a part of welfare reauthorization. The proposed program would seek to increase healthy marriage by providing individuals and couples with:
Accurate information on the value of marriage in the lives of men, women, and children;
Marriage-skills education that will
enable couples to reduce conflict and increase the happiness and
longevity of their relationship; and
Experimental reductions in the financial penalties against marriage that are currently contained in all federal welfare programs.
All participation in the President's marriage program would be voluntary. The initiative would utilize existing marriage-skills education programs that have proven effective in decreasing conflict and increasing happiness and stability among couples. These programs have also been shown to be effective in reducing domestic violence. The pro-marriage initiative would not merely seek to increase marriage rates among target couples, but also would provide ongoing support to help at-risk couples maintain healthy marriages over time.
The plan would not create government bureaucracies to provide marriage training. Instead, the government would contract with private organizations that have successful track records in providing marriage-skills education.
Timing and Targeting of Services
Healthy Marriage Initiative is often characterized as seeking to
increase marriage among welfare (TANF) recipients. This is somewhat
inaccurate. Most welfare mothers have poor relationships with their
children's father: In many cases, the relationship disintegrated
long ago. Attempting to promote healthy marriage in these
situations is a bit like trying to glue Humpty-Dumpty together
after he has fallen off the wall. Such a program would be certain
to fail.By contrast, a well-designed marriage initiative would
target women and men earlier in their lives when attitudes and
relationships were initially being formed. It would also seek to
strengthen existing marriages to reduce divorce.
The primary focus of marriage programs would be preventative-not reparative. The programs would seek to prevent the isolation and poverty of welfare mothers by intervening at an early point before a pattern of broken relationships and welfare dependence had emerged. By fostering better life decisions and stronger relationship skills, marriage programs can increase child well-being and adult happiness, and reduce child poverty and welfare dependence.
A serious pro-marriage initiative would target couples and individuals and couples ina variety of venues.The marriage initiative would include:
Education about the value of marriage and life-skills planning for high school students who are at risk of out-of-wedlock child bearing;
Pre-marital counseling programs
for engaged couples and marriage enrichment programs for married
couples. These programs have potential to reduce future divorce.
While it would not be necessary for the government to broadly
subsidize middle-class use of these programs, government funds
should be used as a catalyst to promote awareness and make such
programs more widely available;
Marriage and relationship skills training for young unmarried adults prior to achild's conception; and,
Marriage skills training for
low-income married couples at the time of a child's birth.
Childbirth places considerable strain on relationships and this can
lead to divorce. It is possible that lower-income married couples
could benefit from pro-marriage services as much or more than
Much of the discussion of marriage promotion has focused on unmarried couples at the "magic moment" of a child's birth.These discussions use data from the Fragile Families survey.While services should be offered at the magic moment of birth, it is now clear that this is not the optimal point of intervention.Waiting until after a child is born to figure out whether you want to make a permanent commitment to your partner is a bad strategy.Moreover, many unmarried, new parents are poorly prepared for either marriage or parenthood.
There is widespread agreement, among both liberals and conservatives, that the best point of intervention with these young couples would have been prior to their child's conception, rather than after the child's birth. However, while the government has virtually guaranteed access to low-income mothers at the time of birth, contact with young, low-income adults at an earlier stage is commonly thought to be difficult or impossible. In fact, this perception may be erroneous. The federal government currently funds some 4,700 birth control clinics through the Title X program. These clinics provide birth control to 4.4 million low-income persons each year-most of which are young adult women. Many of the clientele of these clinics will become members of the "fragile families" of the future.
In addition to birth control, it should be relatively simple for these clinics to offer voluntary referrals to programs providing life-planning, marriage, and relationship training, to those who are interested.The goal of such programs would be to encourage young adult women to delay childbirth and to develop stable marital relationships before bringing children into the world. The potential for outreach through the Title X clinics may actually be greater than through maternity wards. Expanding healthy marriage services to cover the time prior to a child's conception may considerably increase the effectiveness of future programs.
At present, Title X clinics do a poor job in preventing out-of-wedlock childbearing.In part, this is because these clinics offer free birth control but do not provide life skill training that would help young adult men and women prepare for decisions concerningchildbirth and child-rearing more wisely. Offering referrals to a broader range of services at Title X clinics could greatly increase their effectiveness.
The President's Healthy Marriage Initiative has been included in the Personal Responsibility, Work, and Family Promotion Act of 2003 (H.R. 4) that was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in May 2002 and again in February 2003. The bill creates a small funding set aside in the TANF program for healthy marriage promotion.Funds could be used for a specified set of activities consistent with the overarching strategy of promoting healthy marriage. These activities would include:
Public advertising campaigns on the value of marriage and the skills needed to increase marital stability and health;
Education in high schools about the
value of marriage, relationship skills, and budgeting;
Marriage education, marriage-skills instruction, and relationship-skills programs-which may include parenting skills, financial management, conflict resolution, and job and career advancement for non-married pregnant women and non-married expectant fathers;
Pre-marital education and marriage-skills training for engaged couples and for couples or individuals interested in marriage;
Marriage-enhancement and marriage-skills training for married couples;
Divorce-reduction programs that teach relationship skills;
Marriage mentoring programs that use married couples as role models and mentors in at-risk communities; and
Programs to reduce the disincentives to marriage in means-tested aid programs, if offered in conjunction with any of the above activities.
Should the Healthy Marriage Program Be Broadened?
Much of the debate about marriage-strengthening will center on this list of allowable uses of the marriage funds. Opponents of the President's initiative will seek to broaden the list to include activities that have little or no link to marriage. The effort to broaden the program to include standard government services such as job training, day care, and contraceptive promotion (all of which are already amply funded through other programs) would dissipate the limited funds available and render the program meaningless.
The President's Healthy Marriage Initiative has been criticized on a number of grounds. Each of these criticisms is inaccurate.
However, as noted, the President’s Healthy Marriage Initiative would promote the goal of preventing non-marital pregnancy in another broad sense. Marriage programs would encourage women to enter healthy marriages before becoming pregnant. In many cases, this would involve encouraging women to avoid pregnancy until they become more mature and more capable of sustaining a viable, healthy relationship. However, this approach would differ greatly from simply handing out contraceptives.
More than 40 years ago, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan—at that time, a member of President Lyndon Johnson’s White House staff—wrote poignantly of the social ills stemming from the decline of marriage in the black community. Since that time, the dramatic erosion of marriage has afflicted the white community as well. Today, the social and economic ills fostered by marital collapse have exceeded Senator Moynihan’s worst expectations.
In response, President Bush has developed the Healthy Marriage Initiative: the first positive step toward strengthening the institution of marriage since the Moynihan report four decades ago. The proposal represents a strategy to increase healthy marriage—carefully crafted on the basis of all existing research on the topic of promoting and strengthening marriage.
There is now broad bipartisan recognition that healthy marriage is a natural protective institution that, in most cases, promotes the well-being of men, women, and children: It is the foundation of a healthy society. Yet, for decades, government policy has remained indifferent or hostile to marriage. Government programs sought merely to pick up the pieces as marriages failed or—worse—actively undermined marriage. President Bush seeks to change this policy of indifference and hostility. There is no group that will gain more from this change than low-income single women, most of whom hope for a happy, healthy marriage in their future. President Bush seeks to provide young couples with the knowledge and skills to accomplish their dreams. The Congress would be wise to affirm their support for marriage by passing welfare reform reauthorization and enacting the President’s Healthy Marriage Initiative.
Robert Rector has served on an HHS grant review panel for marriage programs; he also has served as a consultant on marriage, poverty, welfare and abstinence education for Mathematica Policy Research Inc. These activities involved about six days of work over the last three years and involved payments on a per diem basis with funds provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
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Members of The Heritage Foundation staff testify as individuals discussing their own independent research. The views expressed are their own, and do not reflect an institutional position for The Heritage Foundation or its board of trustees.
For more information on this point, see Robert E. Rector, Kirk A. Johnson, Patrick F. Fagan, and Lauren R. Noyes, “Increasing Marriage Will Dramatically Reduce Child Poverty,” Heritage Foundation Center for Data Analysis Report No. CDA03–06, May 20, 2003.
Robert Rector, “The Size and Scope of Means-Tested Welfare Spending,” testimony before the Committee on the Budget, U.S. House of Representatives, August 1, 2001.
Patrick Fagan, Robert Rector, Kirk Johnson, and America Peterson, The Positive Effects of Marriage: A Book of Charts (Washington, D.C.: The Heritage Foundation, April 2002), at http://www.heritage.org/Research/Features/Marriage/index.cfm.
Robert E. Rector, Patrick F. Fagan, and Kirk A. Johnson, “Marriage: Still the Safest Place for Women and Children,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1732, March 9, 2004.
Patrick F. Fagan, Robert W. Patterson, and Robert E. Rector, “Marriage and Welfare Reform: The Overwhelming Evidence That Marriage Education Works,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1606, October 25, 2002.
Robert E. Rector, Melissa G. Pardue, and Lauren R. Noyes, “‘Marriage Plus’: Sabotaging the President’s Efforts to Promote Healthy Marriage,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1677, August 22, 2003.
The Bush Administration has always been clear that individuals’ participation in the program would be completely voluntary. The Personal Responsibility and Individual Development for Everyone (PRIDE) Act, introduced by Senator Grassley, contains specific language clarifying that point. See Section 103, p. 154 of the PRIDE legislation.
Fagan et al., “Marriage and Welfare Reform: The Overwhelming Evidence that Marriage Education Works.”
Some critics seem to assume that marriage programs would encourage women to marry abusive boyfriends or would try to use marriage to improve an abusive relationship. No marriage program would do this, because all of them rest on the premise that marriage is inappropriate when significant physical abuse exists.
Rector et al., “Increasing Marriage Will Dramatically Reduce Child Poverty.”
Fagan et al., “Marriage and Welfare Reform: The Overwhelming Evidence that Marriage Education Works,” p. 7.
Rector, “The Size and Scope of Means-tested Welfare Spending.”
Christine A. Johnson et al., Marriage in Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, Bureau for Social Research, June 2002, p. 31.
Johnson, Marriage in Oklahoma, p. 35.
See Andrew Cherlin, et al., “The Influence of Sexual Abuse on Marriage and Cohabitation,” forthcoming in the American Sociological Review
Rector et al., “Increasing Marriage Will Dramatically Reduce Child Poverty.” Data are taken from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study at Princeton University, at http://crcw.princeton.edu/fragilefamilies. See also Wendy Sigle-Rushton, “For Richer or Poorer,” Center for Research on Child Well-being, Princeton University, Working Paper 301–17FF, 2001.
Robert Rector and Kirk A. Johnson, Ph.d., “Roles Couples’ Relationship Skills and Fathers’ Employment in Encouraging Marriage,” Report of the Center for Data Analysis, CDA04-14, The Heritage Foundation, December 6, 2004
Vee Burke, Cash and Noncash Benefits for Persons with Limited Income: Eligibility Rules, Recipients and Expenditure Data, FY 1998–FY 2000, November, 19, 2001, p. 221.
This figure represents federal job training expenditures from 1965 to 2000 in constant 2000 dollars.
Howard Bloom et al., National JTPA Study Overview: Title II-A Impacts on Earnings and Employment at 18 Months, Abt Associates Inc., January 1993.
See Melissa G. Pardue, Robert E. Rector, and Shannan Martin, “Government Spends $12 on Safe Sex and Contraceptives for Every $1 Spent on Abstinence,” Heritage Foundation Backgrounder No. 1718, January 14, 2004.
For example, Senator Max Baucus has stated that he would oppose even modest funds to promote healthy marriage because “marriage is not something the government should interfere with.” Senator Max Baucus, “Remarks on Welfare Reform Reauthorization,” National Campaign for Jobs and Income Support, March 5, 2002.