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May 31, 2003
Column #1,135

Should Those on Welfare Be Encouraged to Marry?

     Ever since President Bush proposed adding $300 million to welfare reform to promote marriage, critics on the left have scoffed. Such a policy heightens risks for abuse of women said the National Organization for Women.

     Others argue there's a substantial shortage of suitable males to marry, since so many are in jail. Alternatively, some critics postulate that if women married the fathers of their children, the father's earnings are so low the family would remain in poverty.

     The Heritage Foundation has issued a paper that definitively deflates such arguments, "Increasing Marriage Would Dramatically Reduce Child Poverty." It is based on a "Fragile Families" study of 4,700 new and mostly unwed parents which found that half of unwed mothers are living with the father at their child's birth; another 23 percent are romantically involved.

     The new fathers are not bad prospects for marriage. Two-thirds have at least a high school degree; 97 percent were employed during the past year, earning $17,500. Physical abuse is rare. A full 98 percent of women say they have never been slapped.

     Heritage's Robert Rector calculated the "reduction in poverty that would occur if non- married women married the fathers of their children around the time of the child's birth." It focused on 73 percent of couples who were cohabiting or were romantically involved.

     If the mother remains single and unemployed - the old norm for most welfare recipients - "they will be poor 100 percent of the time" because welfare benefits average $8,800, far below poverty.

     If the mother marries the child's father, only 35 percent remain in poverty. "In other words, nearly two-thirds of the non-married fathers earn enough by themselves to support a family." While she loses welfare benefits, their median family income rises by $11,400 to $20,200, including an Earned Income Tax Credit (a cash payment) and food stamps.

     If the woman works part-time after the child's birth, usually 20 hours per week, she pushes her income up to $13,500. About 55 percent remain in poverty. If she marries, the family income jumps to $23,500 - enough to raise 83 percent above poverty.

     Finally, if the mother works full time, her total income as a single person averages $17,500 which puts her and her child above the poverty line. (That's why the 1996 welfare reform, which required welfare recipients to get jobs, reduced welfare rolls by 54 percent - also lifted 3.6 million Americans above the poverty line. Poverty among blacks is at an all-time low.)

     If a mother who works full-time, marries, her family's income rises to a middle class $29,000.

     Some 95 percent of the couples "believe that there is at least a 50/50 chance they will marry in the future." Yet only 9 percent will actually marry within a year of the child's birth.

     The mystery is why do so few marry? Kathryn Edin of Northwestern University interviewed 75 of the "Fragile Families" in depth and discovered that during courtship, a young man tells a young woman, "I want to have a baby by you." She finds that flattering. While she began using birth control in her relationship, she may stop. "Pregnancies are not exactly planned, but neither are most avoided. The bulk are unplanned, but not accidental," she says.

     After the child's birth, a high point in the relationship, the men drift off in a year or two.

     Therefore, the Bush Administration is seeking $200 million from Congress, to be matched by $100 million from the states to support research, demonstrations, evaluations and technical assistance to help those couples create a "healthy marriage."

     Dr. Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary of Health & Human Services, says the money would not be used for a "federal dating service," or to "trap anyone in an abusive relationship." Rather, the funds could be used to teach skills to improve communication and resolve conflict that would make the relationship happier and lead to a healthy marriage. Horn says, "Government should be in the marriage business because it is an effective strategy for improving the well-being of children."

     "The Lord God said `It is not good for the man to be alone,'" reports Genesis.

     Yet nearly half of American adults are alone. "Marriage is central to the nurture and raising of children. It is the `social glue' that reliably attaches fathers to children," write David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. "It contributes to the physical, emotional and economic health of men, women and children. It is also one of the most highly prized of all human relationships and a central goal of most Americans."

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