Report

Welfare Reform and the Marriage Movement

Isabel V. Sawhill

Conservatives have decided that what ails America is that not enough of us are getting and staying married. They have a point. Not only are fewer people marrying than in the past but, more disturbingly, one out of every three children is born outside of marriage. The life chances of these children are seriously compromised. Far more of them will grow up in poverty, fail in school, and enter adolescence with a propensity to repeat their parents’ youthful mistakes. Indeed, as Jonathan Rauch argues, and the data suggest, marriage is displacing both income and race as the great class divide in America. Children growing up in a one-parent family are four times as likely to be poor as those growing up in a two-parent family, and those growing up in a single parent white family are three times more likely to be poor then those growing up in a two parent black family.

Not all children in single parent homes are adversely affected, of course, but the odds that they will succeed are considerably lower than those of children who grow up in intact families. Moreover, when whole communities come to be made up primarily of single parent families, children grow up with few male role models and fail to see marriage as a realistic life choice. The extent to which this then gives rise to various forms of antisocial behavior, especially among young men, remains controversial, but probably should not be dismissed.

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