Marriage, the best welfare reform

Posted: Jan 15, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

Those excusing the single-motherhood status quo say that there are just no men for low-income mothers to marry. According to a Princeton University survey, however, roughly half of mothers of out-of-wedlock kids are cohabiting with the father at birth. The relationships are there; they just don't last. Another excuse is that the men involved don't make enough money to support the mothers. But fathers of children born out of wedlock make, on average, $17,000 a year. According to Rector, if they were to marry the mothers of their children, 75 percent of the mothers would be lifted out of poverty. In roughly two-thirds of the cases, the mothers would be lifted out of poverty without even having to work themselves.

Nor is the problem that marriage is held in low esteem. "Marriage is already sold; we don't need to sell it," says Horn. Rector reports that single mothers value marriage. It's just that they consider it a near-utopian state to be achieved in some far-off future when they have made it into the middle class. What they don't realize is that marriage is their ticket into the middle class.

Why not help those young couples -- on a voluntary basis, of course -- interested in getting this ticket? Private-sector programs that teach couples better relationship skills have repeatedly been shown to encourage healthy, sustained marriages. Most of these programs have been tried with middle-class couples, but they would almost certainly work with low-income couples -- the target of the Bush proposal -- as well.

"What is astounding to me," says Horn, "is that this isn't already being done, because it's so logical." Unfortunately, logic hasn't been the guide to American social policy since the 1960s. Or the most effective anti-child poverty program ever would never have been abandoned.