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Making Marriages Work

June 15, 2002

President Bush wants Congress to set aside $300 million in the welfare reform law to promote "healthy, stable marriages." To proponents of the fund, that means programs urging marriage and counseling to keep couples together. The money should be spent on something more than promoting marriage; it should be spent on one obvious element that helps encourage a strong marriage: financial stability. That means much of it should go for vocational training and jobs.

In 1965, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of Labor, documented the breakup of the two-parent black family in a seminal and controversial report, "The Negro Family: A Case for National Action."

Moynihan was able to show "an extraordinarily powerful correlation between male unemployment rates and certain indices of family stability--single-parent households, husbands absent and so forth." He also could show an extremely strong correlation between the black male unemployment rate in a given month and 80% of the new black welfare cases six months later.

The problem was exacerbated as factories offering low-skill, well-paying jobs left the cities. Around the same time, Great Society programs like Head Start helped poor children, but some poverty programs, such as welfare, had rules that encouraged fathers not to live with or support the mothers of their children.

From 1963 to 2000, the percentage of out-of-wedlock births increased nearly threefold for blacks and almost tenfold for whites. Single motherhood exploded across racial, ethnic, income and geographic lines. Divorces broke up more families. Welfare rolls multiplied. The Aid to Families With Dependent Children program became a permanent means of support, passing from one generation of fatherless children to the next, until in 1996 the White House and Congress said "enough."

Children born to married parents and who grow up with two parents are more likely to be healthier and do better in school. They are less likely to grow up poor, flunk out, suffer abuse or neglect, have children out of wedlock, go on welfare or go to jail. But a stable family doesn't happen by decree.

The White House and Congress can't and shouldn't force "shotgun" marriages; however, laws can change behavior and reverse trends. As the Senate Finance Committee considers the reauthorization of the federal welfare law as early as next week, it should be guided by the experience of the last few decades, as well as by common sense: Marriage matters, but so does the parental ability to pay the bills.

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