Marriage Plus

The public has been concerned about "family breakdown"
for a long time, but it was not until the passage of welfare reform in 1996 that
the federal government decided to get into the business of promoting marriage.
Although it was little noticed at the time, three of the four purposes of the
welfare legislation refer directly or indirectly to marriage and family
formation. The law exhorts states to promote "job preparation, work and
marriage," to "prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies,"
and to "encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families."

The Bush administration, as it contemplates this year's extension of
welfare legislation, plans to make marriage even more central. The
administration's reauthorization proposal, announced February 27, includes $300
million for demonstration grants to focus on promoting healthy marriages and
reducing out-of-wedlock births. Meanwhile, Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating has
launched a $10-million, multisector marriage initiative, and other smaller-scale
government-sponsored initiatives have been enacted in Arizona, Florida,
Louisiana, Michigan, and Utah. The federal government is primarily concerned with
reducing out-of-wedlock births, which it views as a principal cause of welfare
dependency and a host of other social problems. By contrast, state marriage
initiatives are mostly concerned about the effects of high divorce rates and
father absence on children.

This new emphasis on marriage as a panacea for social problems is troubling to
many liberals. For one thing, it risks being dismissive of children who happen to
find themselves in single-parent families. It also can be seen as disparaging
single mothers and ignoring the fact that many women have left abusive marriages
for good reasons.

That said, it's hard to dismiss an overwhelming consensus of social-science
research findings that children tend to be better off, financially and
emotionally, when their parents are married to each other. Around 50 percent of
all first marriages are expected to end in divorce, and 60 percent of all
divorces involve children. One-third of all births are out of wedlock, nearly 40
percent of children do not live with their biological fathers, and too many
nonresident fathers neither support nor see their children on a regular basis.

Children living with single mothers are five times as likely to be poor as
those in two-parent families. Growing up in a single-parent family also roughly
doubles the risk that a child will drop out of school, have difficulty finding a
job, or become a teen parent. About half of these effects appear to be
attributable to the reduced income available to single parents, but the other
half is due to noneconomic factors. It's not just the presence of two adults in
the home that helps children, as some argue. Children living with cohabiting
partners and in stepfamilies generally do less well than those living with both
married biological parents.

Marriage also brings benefits to husbands and wives. Married adults are more
productive on the job, earn more, save more, have better physical and mental
health, and live longer, according to an extensive review of research conducted
by scholar Linda Waite. Although Waite admits that these findings partly reflect
the selection of better-adjusted people into marriage, she finds that when people
marry, they act in more health-promoting and productive ways.

Conservatives are prone to exaggerate these research findings
and underplay the importance of economics. If married people are more likely
(other things being equal) to produce thriving children, other things are not, in
fact, equal. It's not just the case that single mothers find themselves poor
because they are unmarried; they find themselves unmarried because they are poor.
Successful marriages are more difficult when husbands and wives are poorly
educated, lack access to jobs that pay decently, and cannot afford decent child
care. Economic hardship and other problems associated with poverty can wreak
havoc on couples' relationships.

The controversy mostly isn't about research, however, but about values.
Most people regard decisions to marry, divorce, and bear children as intensely
private. Any policy proposals that hint at coercing people to marry, reinforcing
Victorian conceptions of gender roles, or limiting the right to end bad marriages
are viewed as counter to American values of individual autonomy and privacy. Some
worry about the existence of hidden agendas that threaten to put women back into
the kitchen, ignore domestic violence, and eliminate public assistance for
low-income families. Others fear that holding out marriage as the ideal blames
single parents, many of whom do a terrific job under difficult circumstances. Use
of the term "illegitimate" is especially offensive because it stigmatizes
children (and, in fact, is legally inaccurate, as children born outside of
marriage now have virtually the same legal rights as those born within marriage).
And some worry that the pro-marriage agenda discriminates against ethnic and
sexual minorities and their children, particularly gays and lesbians.

There are also more pragmatic concerns. Skeptics of the pro-marriage agenda
observe that the decline in marriage is worldwide, a result of overwhelming
social and economic forces that cannot be reversed. In their view, attempts to
change family formation behavior are largely futile; we should instead just
accept and help support the increasing diversity of family forms. For others, the
concern is less about the value of promoting marriage and more about whether
government, rather than individuals, communities, or faith institutions, should
lead the charge.

Finally, marriage per se is too simplistic a solution to the complex problems
of the poor. Marrying a low-income, unmarried mother to her child's father will
not magically raise the family out of poverty when the parents often have no
skills, no jobs, and terrible housing, and may be struggling with depression,
substance abuse, or domestic violence. Advocates also worry that funds spent on
untested marriage-promotion activities will be taken away from programs that
provide desperately needed services for single parents, such as child care.

In response to some of these concerns -- as well as research showing that
serious parental conflict harms children -- some marriage advocates respond that
marriage per se should not be the goal but rather voluntary, "healthy" marriages.
They also agree that protections should be built into programs to guard against
domestic violence. But this only raises doubts about how "healthy" will be
defined, and by whom, and whether we even know how to help people create better

There also are some plainly foolish ideas in the marriage movement. West
Virginia currently gives married families an extra $100 a month in welfare
payments as a "marriage incentive." Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation has
proposed giving a $4,000 government bounty to welfare recipients who marry before
they have a child and stay married for two years. Charles Murray wants to end
public assistance altogether and has proposed eliminating all aid to
unmarried mothers under 18 in one state to test the idea. This proposal is
especially egregious and surely would harm children of single mothers.

Progressives and others thus are placed in a quandary. They don't want
to oppose marriage -- which most Americans still value highly -- but are
skeptical of many pro-marriage initiatives. Given that healthy marriage is
plainly good for children, however, one can envision a reasonable agenda -- one
that would gain broad support -- that we might call Marriage-Plus. This approach
puts the well-being of children first by helping more of them grow up in married,
healthy, two-parent families. However, for many children, the reality is that
marriage is not a feasible or even a desirable option for their parents. Thus, a
secondary goal is to help these parents -- whether unmarried, separated,
divorced, or remarried -- cooperate better in raising their children. These are
not alternative strategies. Children need us to do both.

A marriage-plus agenda does not promote marriage just for marriage's sake.
It acknowledges that married and unmarried parents, mothers and fathers, may need
both economic resources and noneconomic supports to increase the likelihood of
stable, healthy marriages and better co-parenting relationships. In addition, a
marriage-plus agenda focuses more on the front end (making marriage better to be
in) rather than the back end (making marriage more difficult to get out of).

Here are some elements of this agenda.

Help "fragile families" at the birth of a child. For many poor families,
relationship-education programs may be helpful but not enough. A new national
study finds that at the time of their child's birth, one-half of unmarried
parents (so-called "fragile families") are living together, and another third are
romantically attached but not cohabiting. The majority of these parents are
committed to each other and to their child and have high hopes of eventual
marriage and a future together -- although these hopes too often are not
realized. We should reach out to young parents to help them achieve their desire
to remain together as a family. A helpful package of services to offer these
young families might include a combination of "soft" services --
relationship-skills and marriage-education workshops, financial-management
classes, and peer-support groups -- and "hard" services, such as job training and
placement, housing, medical coverage, and substance-abuse treatment, if
necessary. At present, all we do is get the father to admit paternity and hound
him for child support. [See Ronald B. Mincy, "What about Black Fathers?"]

Reduce economic stress by reducing poverty. Poverty and unemployment can
stress couples' relationships to their breaking point. Results of a
welfare-to-work demonstration program in Minnesota suggest that enhancing the
income of the working poor can indirectly promote marriage. The Minnesota Family
Investment Program (MFIP), which subsidized the earnings of employed welfare
families, found that marriage rates increased for both single-parent long-term
recipients and two-parent families. Married two-parent families were
significantly more likely to remain married. MFIP also reduced the reported
incidence of domestic abuse.

Provided better-paying jobs and job assistance. The inability of low-skilled,
unemployed men to provide income to their families is a major reason for their
failure to marry the mothers of their children. Better employment opportunities
help low-income fathers, and men in general, to become responsible fathers and,
perhaps, more attractive and economically stable marriage partners. There is also
growing support for making changes in the child-support system to ensure that
more support paid by fathers goes to the children (rather than being used to
recoup government program costs).

Support proven ways of preventing teen pregnancy. Teen pregnancy and birth
rates have fallen by over 20 percent since the early 1990s, and there is now
strong evidence that a number of prevention programs are effective. [See Isabel
V. Sawhill, "Is Lack of Marriage the Real Problem?"] A related
strategy is enforcement of child support. States that have tough, effective
child-support systems have been found to have lower nonmarital birth rates,
presumably because men are beginning to understand there are serious costs
associated with fathering a child.

Reduce work/family stresses on couples. Stress in the workplace spills over
into the home. Persistent overtime, frequent travel, and inflexible leave
policies place great strain on couples at all income levels. Employers are
increasingly demanding nonstandard work schedules. A recent study found that
married couples with children who work night and rotating shifts are at higher
risk of separation and divorce. The absence of affordable and reliable child care
forces many parents who would prefer a normal workday to work split shifts solely
to make sure that a parent is home with children.

Cut tax penalties and other marriage disincentives. There has always been
strong support for reducing marriage tax penalties for many two-earner families.
This is a complicated task because the majority of married couples, in fact,
receive tax bonuses rather than penalties. A positive step was taken in 2001 to
reduce significantly the marriage penalty affecting low-income working families
in the Earned Income Tax Credit program. While there is uncertainty about the
extent to which these tax-related marriage penalties affect marital behavior,
there is broad general agreement that government has a responsibility to "first
do no harm" when it comes to marriage.

Similarly, there is near unanimous agreement that government should not make
it harder for eligible two-parent families to receive welfare benefits and
assistance. In the past, the old welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent
Children, was much criticized for offering incentives to break up families. At
least 33 states already have removed the stricter eligibility rules placed on
two-parent families, and the president's welfare reauthorization proposal
encourages the other states to do the same. In addition, it proposes to end the
higher work participation rate for two-parent families, a federal rule that has
been criticized widely by the states. Another needed reform would forgive
accumulated child-support debt owed by noncustodial fathers if they marry the
mothers of their children. (Currently, such debt is owed to the state if the
mothers and children are receiving welfare benefits.)

Help those who want to marry and stay married. A vast industry is devoted to
helping couples plan a successful wedding day -- wedding planners, 500-page bridal guides, specialty caterers, the list goes on. But where do young people go
to learn about how to sustain good, lifelong marriages? In fact, we now know a
lot about what makes contemporary marriages work. With the transformation of
gender roles, there are fewer fixed rules for couples to follow, meaning they
have to negotiate daily who does what and when. In the absence of the legal and
social constraints that used to keep marriages together, there's now a premium on
developing effective relationship skills. Building on three decades of research,
there are a small but rapidly growing number of programs (both religious and
secular) that help people from high school through adulthood understand the
benefits of marriage for children and for themselves, develop realistic
expectations for healthy relationships, understand the meaning of commitment, and
learn the skills and attitudes needed to make marriage succeed. Other programs
help married couples survive the inevitable ups and downs that occur in most
marriages, and help remarried couples with the additional challenges of
step-parenting. Oklahoma, Utah, and Michigan have begun using government funds to
make these relationship- and marriage-education programs accessible to low-income
couples. The Greater Grand Rapids Community Marriage Policy initiative is urging
area businesses to include marriage education as an Employee Assistance Program
benefit, arguing that it's more cost-effective to prevent marital distress than
to incur the costs of counseling and lost productivity involved when employees'
marriages break up.

A marriage-plus agenda that includes activities such as these is
not just the responsibility of government. Some of the strategies proposed here
are being implemented by private and religious groups, some by governments, and
some by partnerships between these sectors. The approach adopted in Oklahoma,
Greater Grand Rapids, and Chattanooga, for example, mobilizes the resources of
many sectors of the community -- government, education, legal, faith, business,
and media -- in a comprehensive effort to create a more marriage-supportive
culture and to provide new services to promote, support, and strengthen couples
and marriage and reduce out-of-wedlock childbearing and divorce. This "saturation
model" seems particularly promising because it takes into account the many
factors that influence individuals' decisions to marry, to divorce, or to remain
unmarried. We should proceed cautiously, trying out and evaluating new ideas
before applying them widely.

Ironically, in the midst of this furor about government's role in marriage,
it's worth noting that the federal government recently has begun to shirk a basic
responsibility: counting the numbers of marriages and divorces in the United
States. Since budget cuts in 1995, the government has been unable to report on
marriage and divorce rates in the states or for the nation as a whole. And, for
the first time in the history of the Census, Americans were not asked to give
their marital status in the 2000 survey. What kind of pro-marriage message from
the government is that?

If liberals and conservatives are serious about strengthening families for the
sake of helping children, liberals ought to acknowledge that noncoercive and
egalitarian approaches to bolstering marriage are sound policy. Conservatives,
meanwhile, should admit that much of what it takes to make marriage work for the
benefit of spouses and children is not just moral but economic.

For an annotated version of this article, click here.

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