Marriage: what can government do?

Posted: Apr 16, 2002 12:00 AM
When parents are married, children do better and so do taxpayers. Nobody really contests the point anymore, which is why critics of President Bush's modest marriage initiative (part of the re-authorization of the welfare reform bill now debated in Congress) are reduced to what I call The Argument of Despair.

Sure, marriage is better for kids and for parents, too. Sure, taxpayers shell out a bundle to deal with the consequences of family fragmentation -- everything from poverty programs (welfare, food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid) to crime control, foster care, drug abuse and child support enforcement.

But unfortunately, there is just Nothing We Can Do.

Nonsense. Bush plans to use a tiny fraction of surplus welfare dollars to fund marriage education services for at-risk couples. Such programs may help reduce divorce, and they also appear to reduce domestic violence -- a no-brainer two-fer. Here are two more simple ideas the Department of Health and Human Services could easily implement (from a larger National Fatherhood Initiative policy brief I just completed. E-mail me for an e-copy at

1. Add an explicit marriage message to government-funded teen pregnancy programs. You may think the government already does this. Alas, most teen pregnancy prevention programs focus on age alone, not marital status, as the key risk factor. Avoiding early childbearing is good. Avoiding early unwed childbearing is even better.

Girls and young women with positive attitudes toward unmarried childbearing are five time more likely to end up young, unwed mothers. The vast majority of Americans of all ethnic and social groups believe that teen-agers should delay pregnancy until marriage. Yet the majority of teens currently approve of unmarried childbearing, putting them at high risk.

A new generation of teen pregnancy programming should adopt an explicit marriage message to teens: Delay pregnancy until you are grown, educated and married.

2. Fund (and evaluate) divorce education programs to reduce unnecessary divorce. Half of all U.S. counties have court-connected divorce programs, many of them mandatory. But current programs have limited goals: reducing litigation and acrimony. Why not find out what kind of divorce education facilitates reconciliation as well?

Not everybody who files for divorce is absolutely bound and determined. A surprisingly high proportion of divorcing couples are ambivalent. In one major study, one year after the divorce, at least one spouse in three-quarters of divorcing couples reported second thoughts. Between 40 percent and 60 percent of divorced people in various state polls say they wish they had tried harder to make their marriages succeed. Meanwhile, only a minority of divorcing parents appear to be in high-conflict or violent marriages.

Thus, research suggests a significant minority of divorcing couples may be candidates for successful reconciliation. Government-funded pilot projects testing a variety of strategies and establishing effective divorce education programs could have a profound impact on divorce rates, at relatively low cost.

To succeed, Bush's marriage initiative should support a variety of promising, noncoercive strategies to help young parents who are interested in marriage succeed and to educate young Americans on the importance of delaying pregnancy until marriage. Even small reductions in rates of divorce and unmarried childbearing would carry a big payoff down the road for children, poor communities and taxpayers.

Government is deeply involved in the family lives of poor, single parents and their children. Government actively instructs youths in the value of contraceptives, sexual abstinence, education, jobs and delaying childbearing until the post-teen years.

In this context, the looming absence of any government effort to support marriage does not represent neutrality. Balancing supports for single parents with a powerful marriage message is the least a government concerned about poor children should do.