Welfaree marriage

Posted: Feb 27, 2002 12:00 AM
The Bush administration proposes one small change in welfare policy: Redirect $100 million now spent on the ineffectual so-called illegitimacy bonus (a small prize to state governments that reduce their illegitimacy rates) into demonstration projects to help poor parents interested in marriage succeed in creating a healthy, lasting bond.

The move is just a small one, but in the right direction: no new money. Just take a fraction of a penny for every dollar the government now spends on subsidizing the consequences of family breakdown (welfare, food stamps, health care, child care, job training, education for single moms and their kids) and look for new ways to help poor families stay together. For every marriage that succeeds, children not only avoid welfare dependence, but a raft of other psychological, educational and health harms down the road.

Do we know how to do this for certain? No, but here are a few ideas: fostering skills-based premarriage education for low-income couples delivered by faith-based groups, court-connected divorce mediation programs in poor neighborhoods aimed at reducing unnecessary divorce (along with acrimony and litigation for couples who do divorce), and new teen pregnancy education programs that actually tell kids, wait until you are grown, educated and married before having a child.

Naturally, Kim Grandy, president of the National Organization for Women, is livid. "To say that the path to economic stability for poor women is marriage is an outrage," she told reporters. Kathy Rodgers, president of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, chimed in: "What people in poverty need are jobs that offer good wages and benefits. ... The $100 million is far better invested in education and job training."

Bush critics absurdly latched onto the latest results from the three-city study of low-income families by Andrew J. Cherlin and colleagues as evidence against the modest marriage initiative. The study's conclusion? Earlier optimistic research suggesting an increase in two-parent families among the poor may be mistaken. Most of those so-called second parents were actually unrelated males cohabiting with or marrying single moms. "The percentage of children living with both biological parents did not increase," researchers concluded.

Not yet, anyway. All the more reason, common sense suggests, that it's time to try something more effective. Especially because another installment of the same three-city study of welfare families ("Welfare Reform: What About the Children?") released this January found that mothers' marital status appeared to have a large effect on child well-being, explaining much of the difference between outcomes in families that left welfare vs. families that remained.

One difference marriage may make: While a stressful marriage can be hard on women, mothers who are not married are often in a churning romantic maelstrom that may have negative effects on the mothers' careers as well as children's well-being. Within just 16 months, 42 percent of poor cohabiting moms had broken up with their partners, compared to 18 percent of poor married moms.

Yes, there are a lot of fragile marriages out there. Poor couples need help building healthy relationships. Better jobs for poor husbands would not hurt, either. A Minnesota welfare initiative that effectively subsidized male wages (allowing poor, overworked, married moms to cut back a bit at work) dramatically reduced the divorce rate in poor couples.

But before we can find out how to do welfare better, we have to admit that jobs alone are not enough: If it is children's welfare we care about, there is just no substitute for marriages that work.