Rich Lowry

Centuries ago, mankind created the greatest anti-child-poverty program in all of recorded history. It was called marriage.

During the past three decades, the consensus behind this wondrously effective social program has collapsed. The result has harmed countless American children for whom there is no disaster quite like being born out of wedlock and growing up in a single-parent household.

Almost two-thirds of the nation's poor children are in single-parent households. A child raised in a never-married household is roughly seven times more likely to be in poverty and five times more likely to be welfare-dependent. He is at greater risk to have emotional problems, fail academically, abuse drugs -- and experience everything else you hope a child would be spared.

The United States doesn't have a "welfare problem," so much as a marriage problem. We spend $200 billion a year on various means-tested welfare programs. Seventy-five percent of it goes to single parents. The welfare system as we know it for children would hardly exist if it weren't for widespread single parenthood.

The Bush administration has proposed programs to strengthen marriage as part of the reauthorization of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, and President Bush might well highlight them in his State of the Union address. If so, the marriage debate in the United States could be usefully widened from whether judges should be allowed to create gay marriages to the broader question of how to strengthen marriage among heterosexuals.

Government has avoided promoting marriage because it feels too "judgmental," and feminists have created a malodor around the institution (patriarchal, repressive, blah, blah, blah). "Over the last 20 years," says Bush administration marriage guru Wade Horn, "there has only been one service that we have not been offering -- marriage education -- because we're afraid of saying the word 'marriage.'"

But without a renaissance in marriage there will be no true welfare reform. "The point of welfare reform was never to have lots and lots of hardworking single mothers," says the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector, who was a prime architect of the 1996 welfare bill. He hoped it would promote marriages that would fundamentally improve the lives of women and children in a way government benefits, or even a job, can't.

Rich Lowry

Rich Lowry is author of Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years .
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