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April 3, 2004
Column #1,179

                Welfare Reform Needs Healthy Marriage Initiative
                               
      This week the Senate began debating re-authorization of Welfare Reform that includes a "Healthy Marriage Initiative" to increase the percentage of couples who marry - and enjoy healthy marriages. The House passed its version of the bill a year ago.

     Only 54 percent of adults are married today and half of new marriages end in divorce.

     When Welfare Reform was passed by Congress in 1996, it was denounced by Sen. Pat Moynihan as "the most brutal act of social policy since Reconstruction."  Marion Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund, called the law "an outrage...that will hurt and impoverish millions of American children."

     However, Welfare Reform has been spectacularly successful at two levels. First, welfare rolls have plunged by 60 percent, as welfare recipients were required to go to work and day care was provided for their children. Even during the recession, when experts predicted that welfare rolls would grow again - they continued to fall.

      Second, the poverty rate has fallen. In 1996, 40 percent of black and Hispanic children were poor. In 2002, the percent fell to 31.5 among blacks and 28.6 of Hispanic kids. And the percentage of single mothers in poverty fell from 50.3 to 39.8. People earn more working than on welfare.

     On the other hand, welfare reform had no impact on out-of-wedlock births, which grew from 1.26 million to 1.35 million children. A third of all births are now to unwed parents.

     Therefore, President Bush proposed a "Healthy Marriage Initiative" to reform Welfare Reform that would earmark $120 million a year of federal grants to promote marriage education and another $120 million a year if states put up $120 million.

     "The President feels strongly...about the need to increase the number of children who are growing up in healthy, married households. They do far better than on every measure of child welfare compared to children growing up in unmarried households," said HHS Assistant Secretary Wade Horn at a press conference Wednesday.

     Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback provided evidence: "Children growing up without fathers are five times more likely to be in poverty, are two to three times more likely to suffer from emotional and behavior problems as teenagers and to drop out of school. They are more likely to commit crime, engage in early promiscuous behavior and commit suicide.

     "By contrast, marriage is a good way out of poverty. It would lift 70 percent of those in poverty out of it if two people are working in a family rather than one."

     How marriageable are the poor, and are they even considering marriage?

     "Fragile Families" research of 4,700 new and unwed parents in inner cities found that at the birth of the child, half are living together, and another quarter are romantically involved. Furthermore, the fathers are much more "marriageable" than has been thought. Some 82 percent are employed and earn $17,500 on average. Two-thirds have at least a high school education. Only 2 percent had hit or slapped the mother. 

     And most important, four out of five of mothers and fathers are considering marriage. But a year after the child's birth only 15 percent are married.

     The Healthy Marriage Initiative would provide funds to help those couples improve their skills of conflict resolution so they might actually marry - and be equipped to build a healthy marriage. Those skills can be taught by mentor couples in churches for free. But for the non-religious, counselors would be paid.

     "The need is clear," observed Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. "For every $1,000 we spend on public programs addressing the breakdown of the family, we only spend $1 trying to prevent that breakdown in the first place. The President's initiative puts the emphasis in the right place - prevention."

     The funds can also be used to help those in the middle class build, enrich and restore marriages. This is a way to prevent families from falling into poverty.

     However, passage of welfare reform with the Healthy Marriage Initiative ground to a halt Thursday when Republican leaders were unable to get 60 votes to cut off debate.  Democrats who opposed the bill in 1996 oppose this bill too. However, they know if they were recorded as voting against a bill to strengthen marriage, that would not look good. So they filibustered.

     It is tragic that partisanship kills this bill that could lift millions out of poverty.

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