subject: Marriage as Public Policy - 12/15/01

from: Smart Marriages

Progressive Policy Institute

September 10, 2001

Marriage as Public Policy

By Daniel T. Lichter



Welfare reform has been a huge success, if measured by reductions in caseloads. Since the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) was passed in 1996, welfare caseloads have plummeted, and are lower today than at any time since 1969. Such diverse states as Wisconsin, Idaho, and Mississippi have experienced reductions of 80 percent or more since 1993. With reauthorization of the bill looming, much of the welfare debate has shifted to questions of how best to build on this success. Many observers -- from across the political spectrum --suggest that policies that strengthen marriage and reduce divorce should be at the center of the debate.

Indeed, an explicit but largely ignored goal of PRWORA has been to "encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families." Most state TANF programs have focused on moving non-working welfare-dependent mothers into the labor force, and only a few states have taken steps to encourage marriage or reduce divorce. Oklahoma, for example, has earmarked 10 percent of TANF surplus funds to reduce divorce, and Florida enacted the "Marriage Preparation and Preservation Act," which includes teaching marriage skills as part of the school curriculum.

The relative lack of attention to marriage promotion has prompted some advocates to argue that government should act much more aggressively to pursue a pro-marriage agenda. A recent report by the Heritage Foundation, for example, proposes a set-aside of 10 percent of TANF funds for marriage promotion programs.

Supporters of marriage promotion rightly contend that marriage confers a variety of benefits. For example, married women have much lower rates of poverty and are less dependent on government assistance than single or divorced mothers, and children do best being raised by both biological parents. In general, married parents also have better mental health, lower rates of alcoholism, and are more likely to be civically engaged.

Although promoting marriage is undeniably a laudable aim, whether government programs can effectively promote marriage is far from certain. Government has virtually no track record on this issue. Moreover, before Congress commits to making significant investments in an unproven arena, policy makers must address an even more fundamental question: Can marriage really be a panacea that helps poor women and their children lead better lives or are supporters of marriage promotion overpromising the benefits of their agenda?

Answering this question isn't easy. Although the empirical evidence in support of marriage is incontrovertible, there is still a great deal we need to know before state TANF programs move too rapidly into uncharted territory. Studies on the "retreat from marriage" in the United States abound, but we have surprisingly little information about the marital behavior of those women about whom policy makers are most concerned: low-income and welfare-dependent unwed mothers.

What we do know paints a complex picture:

Most studies attribute low marriage rates to shortages of economically attractive or "marriageable" men. But too often we fail to appreciate that unwed childbearing also greatly diminishes women's own marriageability. Unwed mothers are 30 percent less likely to marry in any given year than otherwise similar childless women.

Out-of-wedlock childbearing often marks the beginning or continuation of a series of transitory or serial relationships. Cohabitation is common. And, for those who marry, the marriage often doesn't last. On the other hand, for the minority share of unwed mothers who get and stay married, marriage confers large economic benefits, if measured by reductions in poverty and welfare dependence. This is especially true for women with disadvantaged family backgrounds.

In light of this evidence, the view among conservatives that marriage is the solution to poverty and welfare dependence among single mothers must accommodate the obvious -- that unwed mothers face many obstacles to marriage and that the marriages entered into are highly unstable. Marriage may offer only temporary relief for poor women and children. In short, marriage promotion in the absence of strengthening fragile relationships and legal unions (especially among low-income single mothers) is unlikely to provide the kind of long-term solution sought by its proponents.

Clearly, an open and honest discussion of new policies and initiatives that support marriage and strengthen fragile families is a welcome development. Public policies that offer little more than blanket injunctions in support of marriage, however, overlook the many complexities involved.

First of all, in supporting and encouraging marriage, we cannot lose sight of a more troubling long-term social problem: the one million or so babies born each year to unmarried women. Marriage promotion must begin by discouraging out-of-wedlock childbearing, which arguably is the single greatest threat to forming healthy and satisfying marriages that last. Unwed childbearing, in the end, will undermine the pro-marriage agenda, however well intentioned or well conceived.

Secondly, it is important to distinguish a "marriage-only" family policy agenda from a "marriage-plus" approach that strengthens existing marriages and fragile families without removing other needed work or income supports. Marriage promotion policies must not substitute for other social or anti-poverty policies that address existing racial or class disparities in well-being. At the top of a marriage-plus agenda should be programs that prevent unwed pregnancy and unwed childbearing, and that reduce the proportion of children raised in poor single-parent families. A progressive agenda should expand publicly funded family planning programs, support teen pregnancy prevention programs, and build on successful community, school, and faith-based abstinence education programs.

Finally, any marriage-plus agenda must be mindful of subtle distinctions between policies that remove disincentives to marriage (e.g., the "marriage tax penalty" or marriage eligibility rules) from those that create perverse incentives to marry unwisely. Freedom of choice about whether and to whom we marry is a fundamental American value. Marriage promotion policies should not unwittingly entice or "force" women to marry or stay married to men that they would otherwise leave (e.g., abusive men). Instead, we should ask what the government, the private sector, and faith-based organizations can do to help people, including poor unwed mothers, enter into and build successful marriages and strong families that contribute to healthy and satisfying lives for themselves and their children. These are the very goals that middle-class Americans take for granted.

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Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, LLC (CMFCE)

Diane Sollee, Director

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