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Reform’s ignored goal: marriage promotion

While states threw most of their welfare reform efforts into reducing rolls and encouraging work, some analysts criticize the neglect of one of welfare reform’s goals: strengthening of marriage and family.

“States have almost totally ignored this goal,” said Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation. “This is a national disgrace. Erosion of marriage is the cause of child poverty and welfare dependence.” Rector noted that a child born out of wedlock is 700 times more likely to live in poverty than a child born to a couple in a stable marriage.

The Bush administration has said it will propose that Congress set aside at least $100 million each year for experimental programs aimed at getting single parents to marry.

Addressing this problem is “an important step and is potentially bipartisan,” according to the Brooking Institution’s Ron Haskins. However, developing programs is a “fairly delicate operation. It’s a hard thing to do, although there is widespread belief that marriage is critical. The problem is that males available to mothers on welfare tend to have characteristics that statistically don’t make them desirable mates” such as unemployment and histories of domestic violence or incarceration.

Nevertheless, since 1995, the rate of nonmarital births has leveled off. Based on figures from the Census Bureau, the percentage of children under 6 living with their married mother stopped a 30-year decline and has increased every year but one since 1995. Haskins told the committee on the budget for the U.S. House of Representatives that welfare reform may have played some part in these shifts, despite the states’ lack of programs to promote marriage.

“Once mothers understood that they cannot permanently depend on welfare, they begin to realize that they must have other sources of income,” Haskins said. “The major means of achieving income for most of these mothers is work. However, marriage can also increase the mother’s income if she marries a man who is employed.”

Programs specifically designed to increase marriage and reduce nonmarital births could mean even greater success, Haskins said. “Especially important would be programs that offer services to young couples at the time of a nonmarital birth,” Haskins said. “Job training and employment assistance, counseling and other services may prove beneficial at the time of the birth when the parents are committed to each other and their baby.”

According to Rector, there are models in the private sector of effective abstinence and marriage preparation programs. A Colorado marriage preparation program called PREP has documented that divorce is reduced by as much as 50 percent five years after the couple participated in the program, Rector told NCR. “These are programs we could fund tomorrow,” he said, although he said that they would have to be adapted for the inner city.

“The only state that has really started to do anything is Oklahoma,” Rector said. Beginning in 2000, that state has dedicated some $10 million toward divorce reduction, “but it’s not even a drop in the bucket,” Rector said.

Welfare recipient Patricia Capell of Kansas City, Mo., said she would like to see marriage counseling being offered through the TANF program. Capell has been married and divorced three times to men who went to prison. “If I had marriage counseling, maybe maybe I wouldn’t be divorced,” she said.

Preventing divorce would also lower welfare dependence, Capell said. “I’ve seen so many families go through a divorce and then run to welfare,” she said.

As for welfare reform’s effects on the children in families on welfare, studies have shown results have varied according to the child’s age. The Manpower Dem-onstration Research Corporation released findings of 11 welfare programs in six states that showed elementary school children’s academic performance improved when their parents participated in welfare programs that combined work requirements with work supports.

“Welfare reforms and antipoverty programs can have a positive impact on children’s development if they increase employment and income,” the study said. “But increasing employment alone does not appear sufficient to foster the healthy development of children.”

On the other hand, research has shown that adolescents in welfare families may be having difficulties. Child Trends, a Washington-based research center, examined data on three studies of welfare reform’s effects on adolescents. The group said that the adolescents whose parents participated in welfare-to-work programs showed increased behavioral problems and lower academic achievement.

Child Trends offered possible explanations: reduced parental supervision and greater parental stress due to work requirements, and adolescents being required to assume more adult responsibilities in the household. The group’s recommendations included after-school programs, flexibility in parental working hours, and child care programs to minimize reliance on adolescents for care of their younger siblings.

-- Teresa Malcolm

National Catholic Reporter, March 1, 2002