The Case for Federal Programs to Promote Marriage

Ron Haskins

Chairman Brownback, Ranking Member Landrieu, and Members of the Subcommittee:

My name is Ron Haskins. I am a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Senior Consultant at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Thanks for inviting me to talk with your subcommittee about the case for federal programs to promote marriage in general and the Brownback proposal for the District of Columbia in particular. My first goal is to briefly summarize the evidence from social science research about the impact of marriage on poverty and on children’s development. There is widespread agreement among social scientists that marriage reduces poverty and helps make both children and adults happier and healthier. It is reasonable to project from these studies that if marital rates could be increased, many of the nation’s social problems, including poverty, school failure, crime, mental health problems, and nonmarital births, would be reduced. Unfortunately, there is little good information available about ways to promote marriage. That is why I am so pleased to testify before you today. The Brownback proposal for Marriage Development Accounts and for Pre-Marriage Development Accounts is an interesting approach to increasing rates of healthy marriage that holds great promise and that should be implemented and carefully studied.

America is engaged in a great experiment to test whether millions of our children can be properly reared without providing them with a stable, two-parent environment during childhood. For the past four decades, the demographic markers of stable two-parent families have disintegrated. Marriage rates have declined precipitously, divorce rates rose and then stabilized at a high level, and nonmarital births increased dramatically at a rapid rate until roughly the mid-1990s and have continued to increase, albeit at a slower rate, since then.

One of the first social scientists to notice these developments was an obscure sociologist in the Department of Labor by the name of Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In 1965 he wrote a famous paper on the black family, arguing that family dissolution was the major reason black Americans were not making more social and economic progress in America. At that time, the nonmarital birth rate for blacks was around 25 percent. Today the percentage for blacks is 70. Now both Hispanics, at about 45 percent, and whites, at about 25 percent, equal or exceed the level of nonmarital births that Moynihan saw as alarming. Indeed, over 33 percent of all our nation’s children are now born outside marriage — well above the rate Moynihan saw as alarming in 1965.

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