Welfare Reform and The Healthy Marriage Initiative

Testimony Welfare

Welfare Reform and The Healthy Marriage Initiative

February 10, 2005 29 min read
Robert Rector
Senior Research Fellow, Center for Health and Welfare Policy
Robert is a leading authority on poverty, welfare programs, and immigration in America.

Statement Before the Sub-committee on Human Resources in 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:

  • The program would be focused on early intervention, helping young adult couples establish stable and healthy relationships before the conception and birth of a child.
  • Participation in the program would be strictly voluntary.
  • Although there is much chatter about an alleged shortage of marriageable males as a barrier to marriage, in reality, nearly half of unmarried mothers are living with the child's father at the time a child is born; another 23 percent are in a stable romantic relationship with the father. A shortage of "marriageable men" is not a major obstacle to marriage promotion.
  • Over 95 percent of unmarried fathers worked during the year of the child's birth; their median annual earnings were $17,500.(This is higher than the mothers' earnings.)Drug and alcohol abuse among these fathers is rare.
  • Marriage can have a dramatic effect in reducing child poverty.If poor single mothers were married to the fathers of their children, nearly 70 percent would be immediately lifted out of poverty.
  • Some argue that the key to increasing marriage in low income communities is to provide job training to increase the wages and employment of fathers.One problem with this approach is that government job training programs generally have a very limited impact on employment and earnings.More importantly, data from the Fragile Families survey show that increasing fathers' employment and earnings will have only a marginal effect in increasing marriage. Improving attitudes and relationship skills will have a far greater impact.
  • Domestic violence among the low income couples who would be targeted for the healthy marriage initiative is very rare.In fact, only 2 percent experience domestic violence.Critics of the healthy marriage initiative often cite statistics showing that a high percent of middle-aged welfare mothers have suffered domestic violence at some point in the past.These figures are irrelevant for two reasons.First, the healthy marriage initiative will focus on younger women around the time of a child's birth, not older mothers with a long history of welfare dependence.The domestic violence rates are very different for these two groups.Second, the fact a woman has experienced domestic violence in the past does not mean she is experiencing violence in a current relationship, or that most prior relationships have involved violence.
  • Most domestic violence occurs in cohabitation not marriage; helping couples move from unstable cohabiting relationships into healthy marriage should reduce domestic violence.
  • Over 100 separate evaluations show that marriage skill education programs, of the sort that would be used in the healthy marriage initiative, are effective in reducing strife, improving communications skills, increasing couple stability and enhancing marital happiness.
  • Some argue that the healthy marriage initiative should be broadened to include funding for other activities such as daycare, job training, and birth control.The problem is that government already spends massively on these other activities: over $20 billion annually on daycare; $6.2 billion on job training and $1.7 billion on birth control.To allow healthy marriage funds to be diverted to these amply funded activities would dissipate the funding and ensure that relatively little was spent to actually strengthening marriage.

    Some argue that the government should not "interfere" in private decisions concerning marriage.This argument is faulty on several counts.First, participation in the healthy marriage program would be completely voluntary; opposing the marriage initiative on grounds of "non-interference" really means denying low income couples access to information and training that they actively want, but is not available in low income communities.Second, the means-tested welfare system already "intervenes" against marriage by providing substantial financial penalties when low income couples do marry.

    Third, the government spends over $150 billion in subsidies to single parents each year. Much of this expenditure would have been avoided if the mothers were married to the fathers of their children. To insist that the government has an obligation to support single parents-and to mitigate the damage that results from the erosion of marriage-but should do nothing to strengthen marriage itself is myopic. It is like arguing that the government should pay to sustain polio victims in iron lung machines but should not pay for the vaccine to prevent polio in the first place.


The Importance of Marriage


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.)[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4]


Policy Background


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.


President Bush's Initiative to Promote Healthy Marriage


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.[5] 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


The President's 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 unmarried parents.

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.


Program Specifics


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.[6]


Criticisms of the President's Plan

The President's Healthy Marriage Initiative has been criticized on a number of grounds. Each of these criticisms is inaccurate.

  • Individuals will be forced to participate in the program. Critics charge that welfare mothers would be forced to participate in marriage education. In fact, all participation would be voluntary. Services would be provided only to individuals or couples interested in receiving them.[7]
  • The program will increase domestic violence. Critics charge that the program would increase domestic violence by coercing or encouraging women to remain in dangerous relationships. In fact, marriage and relationship-skills training has been shown to reduce, not increase, domestic violence.[8] Such programs help women steer clear of dangerous and counterproductive relationships.[9] Moreover, domestic violence is less widespread among low-income couples than is generally assumed. For example, three-quarters of non-married mothers are romantically involved with the child's father at the time of the non-marital birth: Only 2 percent of these women have experienced domestic violence in their relationship with the father.[10] In general, domestic violence is more common in cohabiting relationships than in marriage: Never-married mothers, for example, are twice as likely to experience domestic violence than are mothers who have married.

    A very common statistic used to oppose the healthy marriage initiative is that some 60 percent of welfare mothers have experienced domestic violence.This figure is based on surveys of older welfare mothers and measures whether the woman has ever experienced domestic violence at any time in the past. By the time they reach their early thirties, single mothers on welfare may have been involved in ten or more intimate relationships.The fact that some 60 percent of these women have experienced domestic violence at least once is not surprising; however, this figure does not suggest that most TANF mothers are experiencing violence in their current relationships or that most of their prior relationships have involved violence.Moreover, as I have stated, older welfare mothers are nota principle target group of the healthy marriage initiative.The initiative would be a preventive strategy focused on younger unmarried couples; as noted, the domestic violence rate among these couples is close to zero.
  • Marriage-skills programs are ineffective or unproven. Critics charge that marriage-skills programs are ineffective. The facts show exactly the opposite: Over 100 separate evaluations of marriage training programs demonstrate that these programs can reduce strife, improve communications skills, increase stability, and enhance marital happiness.[11]
  • The program will bribe couples to marry. Critics charge that the marriage program will bribe low-income women to marry unwisely. This is not true. As noted, all means-tested welfare programs such as TANF, food stamps, and public housing contain significant financial penalties against marriage. The marriage program would experiment with selectively reducing these penalties against marriage.
  • The program is too expensive. The President proposed spending $300 million per year on his model marriage program ($200 million in federal funds and $100 million in state funds). This sum represents one penny spent to promote healthy marriage for every five dollars spent to subsidize single parenthood.[12] This small investment would also help to avert future dependence on welfare.
  • The public opposes marriage promotion. Critics claim that the public opposes programs to strengthen marriage. In fact, the state of Oklahoma has operated a marriage program similar to the President's proposal for several years. Most Oklahomans are familiar with this program; 85 percent of the state's residents support the program, and only 15 percent oppose it.[13]
  • Low-income women are not interested in marriage. Critics charge that low-income women are not interested in marriage and marriage-skills training. However, at the time of their child's birth, more than 75 percent of non-married mothers say they are interested in marrying their child's father. In Oklahoma, 72 percent of women who have received welfare say that they are interested in receiving marriage-skills training.[14]
  • Low-income women have histories of abuse that will make marriage difficult.  Some have argued that low-income women are likely to have experienced sexual abuse or violence in their childhoods and that this abuse makes in far more difficult for them to form stable marriages as adult.[15]Women who have suffered childhood abuse may be more likely to move through a long series of unstable and transitory cohabitions as adults. In reality, relatively few of the women who would be targeted by the healthy marriage initiative will have experienced childhood abuse; however, to the extent they have suffered prior abuse, it would be important to offer services that may help them improve current relationships rather than simply abandoning them to a persistent pattern of relationship failure.
  • The shortage of "marriageable men" makes marriage unlikely for most low-income women.Critics argue that marriage is impractical in low-income  communities because men earn too little to be attractive spouses. This is not true. As noted, nearly three-quarters of non-married mothers are cohabiting with, or are romantically involved with, the child's father at the time of the baby's birth. The median income of these non-married fathers is $17,500 per year. Some 70 percent of poor single mothers would be lifted out of poverty if they married the father of their children.[16]
  • Increasing male wages through job training is the key to increasing marriage. Some argue that the key to getting low-income parents to marry is to raise the father's wages. This notion is inaccurate for several reasons. First, unmarried fathers already earn, on average, $17,500 per year at the time of their child's birth. Second, data from the Fragile Families Survey show that male wage rates have very little to do with whether or not an unmarried father marries the mother of his child. Instead, the most important factors in determining whether or not couples marry after a child's birth are the couples' attitudes about marriage and their relationship skills.[17] These are the precise attitudes and behaviors that would be targeted for change in the President's Healthy Marriage Initiative.

    Third, the federal government already operates seven separate job-training programs and spends over $6.2 billion per year on job training.[18] Since the beginning of the War on Poverty, overall spending on job training has exceeded $257 billion.[19] This spending has had no apparent effect on increasing marriage in the past: There is no reason to believe it would do so in the future.Fourth, most government training programs are ineffective in raising wage rates. For example, a large-scale evaluation of the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) showed that the program raised the hourly wage rates of female trainees by only 3.4 percent and those of male trainees by zero.[20]

    Finally, under H.R. 4, job training may be provided, if needed, to individuals participating in marriage-skills and marriage-enhancement programs. However, any job training must be linked to marriage-skills training. To add job training as a stand-alone spending category within a "marriage" funding stream would cripple any future marriage program by diverting substantial funds into traditional job-training activities that have little to do with marriage.
  • Encouraging marriage at an early age is counterproductive. The age at which women give birth out of wedlock is often underestimated. The issues of out-of-wedlock childbearing and teen pregnancy are generally confused: They are not the same. Most women who give birth outside marriage are in their early twenties. Only 10 percent of out-of-wedlock births occur to girls under age 18; 75 percent occur to women who are age 20 and older.

    The focus of the Healthy Marriage Initiative would be on encouraging couples to form stable, committed relationships and to marry before pregnancy and childbirth occur. In many cases, this would involve delaying childbearing until couples were older and more mature. Thus, the goals of promoting healthy marriage and of postponing childbearing to a mature age are harmonious and mutually supportive. However, simply encouraging a delay in childbearing without increasing the incidence of healthy marriage would have only marginal benefits and would not be wise policy.
  • Government should fund more pregnancy-prevention and contraceptive programs rather than marriage promotion. Some urge that marriage promotion funds should be diverted to contraceptive programs on the grounds that, once women have had children out of wedlock, they are less likely to marry in the future. But the government already spends over $1.7 billion per year on pregnancy prevention and contraceptive promotion through programs such as Medicaid, TANF, Adolescent Sexual Health, and Title X.[21] Overall, current funding for contraception/pregnancy-prevention dwarfs the proposed funding for marriage promotion. Diverting limited marriage funds to even more contraceptive programs would clearly cripple any marriage initiative.

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.

  • Promoting marriage is none of the government’s business. There are some who argue that, while marriage is a fine institution, the decision to marry or not to marry is a private decision in which the government should not be involved.[22] This argument is based on a misunderstanding of the government’s current involvement in the issue of single-parenthood, as well a misunderstanding of the President’s Healthy Marriage Initiative.

    First, the government is already massively involved when marriages either fail to form or break apart. Each year, the government spends over $150 billion in subsidies to single parents. Much of this expenditure would have been avoided if the mothers were married to the fathers of their children. This cost represents government efforts to pick up the pieces and contain the damage when marriage fails. To insist that the government has an obligation to support single parents—and to control the damage that results from the erosion of marriage—but should do nothing to strengthen marriage itself is myopic. It is like arguing that the government should pay to sustain polio victims in iron lung machines but should not pay for the vaccine to prevent polio in the first place.

    Second, the government is already heavily (and counterproductively) involved in individual marriage decisions, given that government welfare policies discourage marriage, by penalizing low-income couples who do marry and by rewarding those who do not. The President’s Healthy Marriage Initiative would take the first steps to reduce these anti-marriage penalties.

    Third, under the President’s initiative, the government would not “intrude” into private matters concerning marriage, since all participation in the marriage promotion program would be voluntary. Nearly all Americans believe in the institution of marriage and hope for happy and long-lasting marriages for themselves and their children. Very few wish for a life marked by a series of acrimonious and broken relationships. The President’s program would offer services to couples seeking to improve the quality of their relationships. It would provide couples seeking healthy and enduring marriages with skills and training to help them to achieve that goal. To refuse services and training to low-income couples who are actively seeking to improve their relationships because “marriage is none of the government’s business” is both cruel and shortsighted.

    Finally, the government has a long-established interest in improving the well-being of children. For instance, the government funds Head Start because the program will ostensibly increase the ability of disadvantaged children to grow up to become happy and productive members of society. It is clear that healthy marriage has substantial, long-term, positive effects on children’s development: Conversely, the absence of a father or the presence of strife within a home both have harmful effects on children. If government has a legitimate role in seeking to improve child wellbeing through programs such as Head Start, it has a far more significant role in assisting children by fostering healthy marriage within society.



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.

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[1]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.

[2]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.

[3]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.

[4]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.

[5]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.

[6]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.

[7]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.

[8]Fagan et al., “Marriage and Welfare Reform: The Overwhelming Evidence that Marriage Education Works.”

[9]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.

[10]Rector et al., “Increasing Marriage Will Dramatically Reduce Child Poverty.”

[11]Fagan et al., “Marriage and Welfare Reform: The Overwhelming Evidence that Marriage Education Works,” p. 7.

[12]Rector, “The Size and Scope of Means-tested Welfare Spending.”

[13]Christine A. Johnson et al., Marriage in Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University, Bureau for Social Research, June 2002, p. 31.

[14]Johnson, Marriage in Oklahoma, p. 35.

[15]See Andrew Cherlin, et al., “The Influence of Sexual Abuse on Marriage and Cohabitation,” forthcoming in theAmerican Sociological Review

[16]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.

[17]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

[18]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.

[19]This figure represents federal job training expenditures from 1965 to 2000 in constant 2000 dollars.

[20]Howard Bloom et al., National JTPA Study Overview: Title II-A Impacts on Earnings and Employment at 18 Months, Abt Associates Inc., January 1993.

[21]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.

[22]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.


Robert Rector
Robert Rector

Senior Research Fellow, Center for Health and Welfare Policy