The Federal and State Governments, Welfare and Marriage Issues

Testimony Welfare

The Federal and State Governments, Welfare and Marriage Issues

May 21, 2001 14 min read
Patrick Fagan
Former William H.G. Fitzgerald fellow
Former William H.G. Fitzgerald fellow in family and cultural issues at The Heritage Foundation.

In beginning my testimony I must stress that the views I express are entirely my own, and should not be construed as representing any official position of The Heritage Foundation, with that understanding, I am honored to be asked by the Committee on Ways and Means, Subcommittee on Human Resources, to testify today on Welfare and Marriage Issues.

The family is the fundamental building block of society and predates the state and even the societies it builds. This is very easily seen in the history of the United States where the societies before the Union was formed had their own very recent histories. All the states were clearly preceded by families uniting to form communities and these communities in turn becoming commonwealths and states. Even as the Union expanded this pattern was repeated again and again.

At the heart of the family is the mother and father who bring their children into existence. Each child comes, not seeking to be brought into the world, but coming as a response to the sexual union of its father and mother. To grow to adulthood each child thrives best when raised in a married family where his or her father and mother are permanently devoted to each other and to their children. The social science data has always supported this common-sense and ancient insight but recently the avalanche of research makes this conclusion incontrovertible. And almost to a piece these studies are produced by politically liberal academics, not by conservatives. The implication of this research is that every child has the right to the married love of the father and mother that brought it, unasked, into existence.

Today however only 28 out of every hundred children conceived in the United States will reach age 18 having the marriage of the biological father and mother intact. Only 40 out of every 100 American children born reach age 18 with the marriage of their biological father and mother intact. The level of alienation and rejection between fathers and mothers has reached such astronomical proportions that one can only conclude that America is a very dangerous place for a child to come into existence. Despite all our rhetoric of concern for children we have so far refused to give them that which they most desire and want: the love of their parents for each other. It is time to begin to redress this disastrous cultural drift. Not only the welfare of the nation needs it, the welfare of children cries out for it.

To help Congress in its deliberations for the last round of Welfare Reform The Heritage Foundation reviewed the literature on the effects of out of wedlock births. 1 The conclusions still stand and have only been amplified by time, and the further review of others.

Out of Wedlock Births increase the national incidence of

  • lowered health for newborns and increases their chances of dying;
  • retarded cognitive, especially verbal, development of young children;
  • lowered educational achievement;
  • lowered job attainment as young adults;
  • increased behavior problems;
  • lowered impulse control (aggression and sexual behavior) ;
  • increased anti-social development. Together all these effects help change their communities from being a support to being a danger to the development of families and their children, and increases the crime rate in their community.

Last year I and my colleague Robert Rector reviewed the literature on the effects of divorce on children2, and from the social science literature we can clearly state that divorce increases the national incidence of

  • Crime
  • Abuse
  • Addiction
  • Decrease the Capacity to Learn
  • Decrease the Graduation Rates
  • Lower Income and Higher Incidences of Poverty 
  • Adult and juvenile suicide
  • Harmful Mental and Physical Health Effects

Furthermore within family life divorce has the effect of increasing the incidence of

  • Weaker parent-child relationships;
  • Destructive ways of handling conflict within the family;
  • Diminished social competency with peers;
  • A diminished sense of masculinity or femininity in adolescence;
  • Troubled courtships;
  • Increased premarital teenage sexual activity, number of sexual partners during adolescence, and out-of-wedlock childbirths;
  • Higher numbers of children leaving home earlier, as well as higher levels of cohabitation for these children; and - keeping the cycle expanding -
  • Higher rates of divorce for the children of divorced parents.

What States have not done

As others have testified and The Heritage Foundation has reviewed 3 the states response to the breakdown of marriage has been minimal. Outside those who have testified before this panel virtually nothing else has been attempted by state legislatures or governors.

If we include all the monies spent or budgeted by the states that have moved on this issue they amount to less than one cent spent to shore up marriage for every thousand dollars spent to support single parenthood though welfare.4

This pattern of spending is a guaranteed way to expand the need for a bigger and bigger safety net as marriage continues to break down more and more. And is hardly the response Congress desired when in the TANF reform it urged states to strengthen marriage and family life:

How the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 Encourages Marriage

Public Law 104-193, which block grants Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds to the states, encouraged the states to strengthen marriage and reduce out-of-wedlock births by stipulating that:

The purpose [of this legislation]…is to increase the flexibility of States in operating a program designed to:

  1. provide assistance to needy families so that children may be cared for in their own homes or in the homes of relatives;
  2. end the dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage;
  3. prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and establish annual numerical goals for preventing and reducing the incidence of these pregnancies; and
  4. encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.5

What Federal Government can do to guide the states

This level of family breakdown is totally new in human history and learning how to restore marriage is going to be one of societies biggest tasks this coming decade, this coming century. 

One overriding common sense rule is that all forms of penalty against marriage, penalties put in place by the federal government over decades, need to be substituted over time with marriage bonuses, particularly for the poor. Marriage by the poor has been penalized by this body, unjustly and to great national detriment, and the injustice needs to be reversed.

More concrete regulation of the states is in order on this issue. Just as clear and unambiguous federal rules created the welfare reform miracle that we have seen in this cycle, so too, unambiguous and clear guidelines are needed to strengthen marriage and help discourage or minimize the desire for divorce.

A set proportion of TANF monies or a separate TANF budget for the rebuilding of marriage among the poor or near poor needs to be appropriated by Congress and then its spending needs to be guided in much the same fashion as happened with TANF.

However lessons from Congress's efforts to reward states that reduced out of wedlock birth need to be incorporated. By rewarding those states that had the greatest drop in out of wedlock births without requiring a plan of action to bring about the reduction Congress has rewarded some states that have done nothing to deserve the rewards. They just happened to be the lucky recipients of demographic changes that had nothing to do with policy initiatives. In experimental psychology the behavior induced by rewarding in this fashion is called `superstition', much as a gambler who wins big on number `26' at the roulette table continues thereafter to play `26' on his big bets.

New Offices of Marriage Initiatives.

The federal government should move to create in each federal social policy department (Health and Human Services, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Justice) an Office of Marriage Initiatives. It would make sense for these offices to coordinate with each other, because the main work of many of their sub-agencies is increased by the breakdown of marriage: ill health, poverty, crime, and addictions. The good news is that with success in figuring out how to promote marriage and stabilize families the demand for services and the cost to the taxpayer will drop over time. This is one of the few instances where the success of a government social agency would cause a decrease in the need for government.

For instance for the HHS Office of Marriage Initiatives I propose the following:

Program Description:

A new office within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would coordinate the Administration's efforts to make all federal social programs more marriage-friendly; bring attention to the positive effects that increasing stable marriages will have on decreasing demand for federal entitlements (which merely deal with the effects of the breakdown of the family); and initiate ways to foster marriage and decrease divorce, particularly among welfare recipients. It would be funded by transferring monies from the following entitlement programs: Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), the Child Support Enforcement Program, and Family Planning Programs.

Recommended Action:

Create a new Office of Marriage Initiatives within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Administration for Children and Families (ACF) to target TANF, Child Support Enforcement, Family Planning, and other program dollars to pro-marriage initiatives with the specific objective of reducing the rate of divorce and out-of-wedlock births each by 30 percent, especially among welfare recipients, within the next decade. Merge the Office of Adolescent Pregnancy and Title V Office (abstinence programs) with this new Office so that their programs contribute to the effort to rebuild the culture of marriage. Allocate about 10 percent of the ACF budget for personnel and discretionary programs to the new Office.


The cost to society from the breakdown of marriage is substantial. According to one federal estimate, the cost of "faltering child development" approaches $1 trillion a year.6 Much of this can be attributed to the breakdown of marriage, since out-of-wedlock births and divorce have been shown to feed the demand for welfare services and to contribute to a multiplicity of social problems, including poverty, crime, addiction, poor health, lower education achievement, job instability, depression, and suicide.

The thinking and culture behind today's federal social programs must be made more marriage-friendly. A sound social policy that targets a portion of the federal budget to programs that reduce illegitimacy and divorce would decrease the future demand for federal assistance and entitlements. Setting aside at least 10 percent of the ACF budget to help increase stable marriages and reduce the demand for federal assistance is reasonable. This would leave 90 percent of the ACF's funding for programs that deal with the effects of family breakdown.

Specifically, the new Office of Marriage Initiatives would:

  • Identify successful pro-marriage programs in operation and disseminate its findings;
  • Design demonstration projects based on those findings;
  • Advise states on how to use surplus TANF monies to increase marriage and decrease out-of-wedlock births and divorce;
  • Stimulate results-oriented curricula on marriage and sexual abstinence in high school, with follow-up evaluations of their effectiveness;
  • Rebuild a federal-state system for gathering hard data and statistics on marriage and divorce; and
  • Design research so that data are used to analyze how much the increase in out-of-wedlock births and divorce over the past 30 years has cost the government, including the decrease in revenue resulting from the effects of family breakdown.

Child Support Enforcement Programs

One federal program exists solely because of the breakdown in marriage, the child support enforcement program.

Program Description:

The federal government has taken an increasingly large role in the Child Support Enforcement system to locate absent parents, establish paternity, obtain court orders for child support or modifications of existing court orders, promote medical insurance for children under the absent parent's plan, collect child support from non-compliant parents, and enforce interstate payments of child support. 

Total federal administrative expenditures for Child Support Enforcement have increased steadily from $236 million in 1978 to $2.04 million in 1994.7 The total net federal cost of these programs by FY 2001 is almost $2.22 billion.8 Payments to the states for Child Support Enforcement are authorized under Titles I, IV-D, X, XI, and XVI of the Social Security Act.9

Recommended Actions:

Transfer 10 percent of the Child Support Enforcement budget ($140 million in FY 2000) to the new Office of Marriage Initiatives to fund efforts-including initiatives to reduce divorce and increase stable marriages-that will reduce the future need for child support enforcement.

Dedicate a portion of the remaining Child Support Enforcement funds to training mediators in how to obtain more robust joint agreements to ensure that both parents continue supporting their children and to reduce the need to take delinquent parents to court, with special attention to the track record of the Focused Thinking Mediation program now in use in Southern Michigan's family courts.

Many other aspects of HHS functioning have parts that really ought to be carried out in a marriage friendly office. The gathering and rebuilding of the national statistics on marriage and divorce is one such project that has always been the neglected program of the two agencies that have housed it: The Bureau of the Census and then the National Center for Health Statistics within the Center for Disease Control.

Child and adult domestic abuse, foster care, and adoption all have many correlates to marriage as the best situation in which to achieve the desired ends. Yet marriage receives little to no attention in the agencies that direct these programs.

The Department of Justice captures nothing, anywhere, in its statistics gathering, on the relationship between family structure and crime, not for juveniles or adults, despite the clear link of rates of abuse and of crime, particularly juvenile crime, to different family structures. The married family, we know from research other than that from DOJ is the safest and best at raising children to avoid crime. Similar patterns of data gathering hold for the Department of Education10, for HUD and likely for Interior as well.

As backing for these conclusions and recommendations I offer as Appendix background a recent short study of the reviewing the activities of states, localities, and private secular and religious efforts to encourage marriage and discourage divorce:

See: "Encouraging Marriage and Discouraging Divorce." 

The following charts describe the national family picture, particularly for children.






1 For that review of the literature see: Patrick F. Fagan, "Rising Illegitimacy: American Social Catastrophe" June 29, 1994, The Heritage Foundation, FYI #19, 1994

2 Patrick F. Fagan and Robert R. Rector, "The Effects of Divorce on America" The Heritage Foundation,Backgrounder # 1373, June 5, 2000

3 Patrick F. Fagan, "Encouraging Marriage and Discouraging Divorce" The Heritage Foundation,Backgrounder # 1421, March 26, 2001.

4 Total spent out on all TANF: average of $400 billion per year for the last four years. The total amount spent to increase marriage or reduce divorce in all 50 states over this period amounts to about $ 13 million.

5 Public Law 104-193, Section 401, Block Grants to States for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (emphasis added).

6 Lackqueline L. Teague, Judy Thorne, Heather B. Luckey, and Thomas J. Hoeger, "Social Costs of Faltering Child Development, Final Report," prepared by the Research Triangle Institute for the Centers for Disease Control, April 1999.

7 1998 Green Book: Background Material and Data on Programs Within the Jurisdiction of the Committee on Ways and Means, WMCP-105-7,[Report No. WMCP-105-7? Committee Print No. WMCP-105-7?] U.S. House of Representatives, 105th Cong., 2nd Sess., May 19, 1998, p. 549.

8 Office of Management and Budget, Budget of the United States Government, Fiscal Year 2001: Appendix, p. 463.

9 See P.L. 104-35 for the latest authorizations.

10 Though this department has recently released a study that confirms, in education outcomes, the superior contribution of married family life for children. See: Christine Winquist Nord and Jerry West, `Fathers and Mothers Involvement in their Children's Schools by Family Type and Resident Status' National Center for Education Statistics, Department of Education, May 2001.


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Patrick Fagan

Former William H.G. Fitzgerald fellow