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May 26, 2001
Column #1030


     Marriage in America is in a sickening decline.

     Last week Census reported that the number of families headed by women with children grew nearly five times faster than married couples with children! Cohabiting couples now number 5.5 million, almost double that of 1990 and 13 TIMES the 430,000 couples of 1960. Sadly, 40 percent of cohabitants have babies outside of marriage.

     Time for a new strategy! Why not reduce divorce and illegitimacy at the front end? That would prevent Humpty Dumpty from falling off the wall, rather than try to piece him together afterward.

     Therefore, Rep. Wally Herger, the new Chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources, held a remarkable hearing Tuesday looking for answers. Herger cited "faint glimmers of hope" that 82 percent of unwed mothers are romantically involved with a child's father at its birth. Almost half were living together. And the majority "believe they have a good chance of marrying the other person. What can or should we do to help young couples and new parents form more permanent relationships including, when appropriate, marriage?" 

     He noted the 1996 welfare reform law allowed states to use welfare funds "to promote marriage and family formation. The logic was clear. If states discourage out-of-wedlock child bearing and encourage marriage, welfare dependence will shrink and children will be better off."

     Welfare funds can be spent to promote marriage? For most Americans this is news.

     Yet the law better known for requiring welfare recipients to go to work, called "Temporary Assistance to Needy Families" (TANF), also states three of its goals are to 1) "end dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work and marriage;" 2) "prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies," and 3)  "encourage the formation and maintenance of two parent families." 

     Perhaps more surprising, there is a big TANF "welfare surplus," that could be used for  marriage. The law pledged that the federal funds going to each state for welfare would NOT decrease as welfare rolls fell. The number of welfare recipients has been cut in half, freeing billions, spent, for example, to create day care centers to help welfare moms go to work. 

     However, there remains a $7 billion TANF surplus that could be spent to reduce divorce rates and promote marriage!

     Sadly, only two states have earmarked any TANF funds for marriage: Arizona and Oklahoma. Leaders of those states were the first to testify at Herger's hearing.

     Arizona has set aside $1.1 million for "marriage skills courses," Arizona State Rep. Mark Anderson told the committee: "Marriage skills courses are going to be offered to young couples preparing for marriage." Couples who have the "skills to communicate when differences arise will have a much better chance at success."

     Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating asked his state Chamber of Commerce and university researchers why the state suffers from such a high poverty rate. 

     One economist replied, "Oklahoma's high divorce rate and low per-capita income are interrelated. They hold hands. They push and pull each other. There's no faster way for a married woman with children to become poor than to suddenly become a single mom."

     Therefore, Gov. Keating boldly announced a specific measurable goal to reduce divorce in Oklahoma by one-third by the year 2010. And he set aside 10 percent of the state's $100 million welfare surplus, $10 million, to create a "Marriage Initiative."

     His Secretary of Health and Human Services, Jerry Regier, testified that the governor asked the leaders of all denominations to sign an Oklahoma Marriage Covenant pledging rigorous marriage preparation and couple mentoring. Some 550 clergy have signed on so far.

     The state is also developing a "secular track" using existing governmental structures in every county, such as home-visiting nurses and welfare workers who will encourage TANF clients to attend classes with the child's father to improve their communication and conflict resolution skills, using a proven curriculum called PREP. The hope is more couples will marry as a result.

     My wife and I were asked to testify as co-chairs of Marriage Savers, which has helped the clergy of 142 cities to develop "Community Marriage Policies" (CMP) that have cut divorce rates.  In Modesto, CA, the first to adopt a CMP in 1986, the divorce rate has plunged 48 percent. And the marriage rate has risen 12 percent, a sharp contrast to national trends.

     I noted kids are doing better as a result. School dropouts fell 20 percent and teen births by 30 percent, triple the U.S. decline.

     Therefore I urged Congress and the President consider following Oklahoma's example.

     First, set a goal to cut the divorce rate by a third in a decade. 

     Second, set aside 5 to 10 percent of TANF funds to do so, since 48 states have done nothing.

Copyright 2001 Michael J. McManus.

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