Strengthen Marriage, But Maintain Safety Net

Ron Haskins and
Ron Haskins Senior Fellow Emeritus - Economic Studies

Sara McLanahan
Sara McLanahan William S. Tod Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs - Princeton University

November 15, 2005

If a new initiative by Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas to provide a marriage bonus to low-income Washington, D.C., couples becomes law, it not only would mark the first time that federal funds have been used exclusively to promote marriage but it also would set the stage for a $1.5 billion marriage promotion initiative supported by President Bush.

Both proposals have been contentious. While few would disagree that a healthy marriage is good for children, adults and society, marriage promotion is rife with controversy. Most Americans do not want government telling them to get married or participate in relationship counseling. And liberals worry that marriage promotion might divert funds for low-income single-parent households.

Although marriage sometimes has seemed in jeopardy over the past few decades as cohabitation, single parenthood and out-of-wedlock births have been on the rise, people generally still view marriage as the best environment for children. And new research commissioned by Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Brookings Institution provides solid evidence that most children benefit from stable marriages.

Forty years ago, when Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York warned about the crisis of the black family and predicted an increase in single parenthood and out-of-wedlock births, his views created a firestorm of protest. But his warnings have proved prophetic, and the costs of family dissolution to Americans’ psychological, social and economic well-being have been enormous.

Today, 27 percent of American children live with a single parent. One-third of all American children — and 70 percent of black children — are born outside of marriage. U.S. divorce and teen birth rates, although leveling off or declining, are the highest among developed countries. These statistics represent emotional pain and financial hardship and portend lower academic and professional achievement, behavior problems and crime.

Mr. Bush — whose marriage promotion initiative is part of legislation reauthorizing the 1996 welfare reform law — is right when he says, “Studies have shown that the ideal is where a child is raised in a married family.” And Mr. Brownback — whose initiative would provide incentives for low-income Washington couples to marry and participate in marital counseling — is on the right track when he says that marriage is “a leading poverty reducer.” But would such initiatives work to bring back marriage? And can they help reduce poverty among low-income families?

Middle-class couples have long benefited from privately provided marriage counseling, and seven states — Arizona, Louisiana, Michigan, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia — have dedicated government funds to provide similar programs to strengthen relationships among poor couples. Also, nonprofit groups such as the East Capitol Center for Change in Washington are working to increase marriage and reduce teen pregnancy among the city’s poorest residents.

But if marriage programs aimed at low-income couples are to succeed, they must address the serious financial issues facing these couples as well as such barriers to marriage as domestic violence and a culture of distrust. The programs have to not only teach relationship skills but also help couples reach their economic goals by bolstering their earnings through referrals for job assistance.

Policymakers must also reduce economic disincentives to marriage in the U.S. tax and welfare systems. If lower-income couples decide to marry, they should not suffer major losses of tax or welfare benefits as a consequence. Because most economic penalties come from welfare programs rather than the tax system, reform efforts should be focused there.

Marriage is not a cure-all for poverty and other social ills. Because single-parent households are now so much a part of American family life, it would be a mistake for policymakers to focus on marriage to the exclusion of other strategies to help poor, single-parent families. Especially promising approaches include reducing teenage childbearing and unintended pregnancies.

Similarly, promoting marriage should not be a proxy for cutting programs for single parents. The public safety net for single-parent families must remain intact. And programs to encourage fathers’ involvement — monetary and emotional — also must continue.

Although marriage has been subjected to many challenges over the last 50 years, it continues to be the most effective institution in which to raise children. Adults, children and American society stand to reap large gains if it can be strengthened and restored as the center of family life and the norm for parents.