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April 19, 2003
Column #1,129

Does Your Town Have a Healthy Marriage Initiative?

     The Senate is considering two major bills proposed by President Bush that would strengthen marriage - both of which have been passed by the House. They deserve support.

     "Instead of lowering taxes little by little, the Congress should do it all at once and give our economy the boost it needs," the President said Wednesday. "Instead of gradually reducing the marriage penalty, we should do it now." The Rose Garden crowd applauded. "Instead of slowly raising the child credit from $600 to $1,000, we should do it now." More applause.

     "A family of four with an income of $40,000 would receive a 96 percent reduction in federal income taxes. Instead of paying $1,178 per year, the family would pay $45 a year. That means extra money in the family budget year after year. That money can cover a lot of bills."

     Beyond the economic reasons are moral ones. 

     Each year, more and more married couples have to pay a "marriage penalty" - extra federal income taxes they would not pay as single adults. Compared to cohabiting couples with the same income, 25 million married couples pay an extra $1,400 just because they are married.

     Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council comes from a large Irish family, which he  decided to research. Of 13 couples among brothers, sisters, and cousins, ten are married and had 24 children. They are teachers, lawyers, factory workers, cashiers, book editors and even a professional wind surfer.

     They were paying an average tax penalty of $1,493, "simply for saying "I do." However, two unmarried, cohabiting couples save 29 percent. "If the couple expecting a baby this summer were to save that money for the first 18 years of their child's life, they could save enough to pay for his college," McClusky wrote in a column. 

     "Two McClusky couples who decided living together was cheaper than getting married save hundreds of dollars a year. Is this the `congratulations' that the President and Congress want to send to my cousin about to be wed? `Get married, we will penalize you...but if you break tradition and simply live together, you'll be living large.'" 

     No wonder marriage rates have plummeted 39 percent since 1970 and cohabitation has soared ten-fold. There are now twice as many couples living outside of marriage today - as get married in an entire year. 

     I predict that if the president's marriage friendly tax legislation passes, that the number of cohabiting couples will stop growing and actually shrink, and the marriage rate will increase.

     The second major bill that would strengthen marriage is welfare reform. When passed in 1996, Sen. Pat Moynihan said it was "the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction." Actually, it pushed the poverty rate of black children and single mothers to an historic low.

     However, the number of babies born out-of-wedlock has continued to rise. Therefore, the President's new welfare reform includes $300 million to promote marriage. It can be spent on teaching relationship skills to high schoolers, premarital education and marriage skills training, divorce reduction programs and even "marriage mentoring programs which use married couples as role models and mentors in at-risk communities."

     "The ultimate antidote to chronic welfare is marriage," says Wendy Wright of Concerned Women for America. "Children fare better under marriage than welfare. Married women are healthier and happier. Marriage strengthens men and lifts women out of poverty."

     However, it is important to note that the $300 million can be spent to promote marriage of all couples, not just among the poor. My wife and I have worked with the clergy of more than 100 cities to create Community Marriage Policies in which churches require much more rigorous marriage preparation, and train mentor couples to meet with both those preparing for marriage and those whose marriages are in crisis. 

     The result is that divorce rates have been slashed in half in such cities as Austin, Kansas City, KS, El Paso and Modesto, CA. However, some cities saw an increase in their divorce rate. A key variable is whether there was staff to train mentors and get more churches involved.

     Federal funds could pay for such staff but only if a city develops a comprehensive "Healthy Marriage Initiative" that will help the poor as well as the middle class. Religious leaders will have to form a coalition with government and non-profit agencies serving the poor to do so. 

     To learn more, click on http://www.acf.hhs.gov/key.html.

     The President's welfare reform with a marriage initiative is likely to pass in June. The funds could be available within months. But is your community even investigating how to apply?

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