Marry or Burn

The White House's new anti-poverty program: Shotgun weddings

''Use the bully pulpit on key issues, especially marriage,'' Rector urged. ''Use...minority groups to reinforce the message. Ideal examples are poor black parents...and former welfare mothers.''

Bush had already taken at least one step in Rector's direction with the appointment of Dr. Wade F. Horn, a prominent marriage activist, as his welfare czar. The founder of a fatherhood-promotion organization, Horn once advocated giving married couples first dibs on public housing. As assistant secretary of health and human services for children and families, he would be intimately involved in crafting the ongoing welfare reform.

In addition to authoring a host of position papers justifying government's entry into "family formation," Wade has been busy trying to counter concerns that the administration seriously means to replace welfare with marriage promotion--blueprint notwithstanding. "Marriage is not the administration's anti-poverty program," he recently told the New York Times. "It's an issue of addition, not subtraction. This will add options and opportunities, not take away from them."

It's selective addition, though. For starters, these services will be eligible to heterosexual couples only. Plus, most of the organizations that jumped on the bandwagon in the primarily western states where officials have been testing marriage promotion in the last two years are churches and other "faith-based organizations." And with a few notable exceptions, that's likely to be the case in most of the country when the money's made available.

Wade's contention that spending on marriage isn't subtraction is false. States that want to start the programs are required to match the federal dollars, but are allowed to use general federal welfare funds to do so. The likely consequence is that states will spend even less on direct assistance to their poorest families.

"That $300 million in marriage money could merely whet appetites for a faith-based feeding frenzy," the Village Voice predicted last year. "The Bush welfare plan proposes 'super waivers' to allow states to spend monies meant for childcare and job training with unprecedented flexibility. It's a macro version of a quiet federal initiative uncovered in late March, in which a few states were to be encouraged to seek waivers on child support rules and spend that money on marriage promotion."

 

It's true that children with married parents are generally better off. But this doesn't mean that convincing parents to get married will automatically improve their fortunes, economic or psychological. Research suggests it's the other way around: Parents with adequate incomes are more likely to marry, and to stay married.

One-third of households headed by single mothers lived in poverty in 2000, as opposed to 6 percent of families headed by married couples, according to census figures. Ninety percent of adult welfare recipients are women, and single mothers are far and away the segment of the population that's most vulnerable to poverty.

"Women who become single mothers are especially likely to have inadequate wages, both because of pre-existing disadvantages such as low educational attainment and work experience and because the shortage of publicly subsidized childcare makes it difficult for them to work full time," writes sociologist Stephanie Coontz, who notes that only 1.2 percent of children of working single mothers with a college degree lived in poverty. "Consider the situation of a single mother with two children working full time, year round at the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, for an income of $10,712. The high cost of childcare helps explain why the economic position of single parents has improved little in recent years despite significant increases in their hours of market work."

It's important to note that in making that computation, Coontz is using national averages. Childcare in the Twin Cities for less than $6,000 a year is virtually unheard of; care at a licensed center easily tops $10,000. Estimates are that marriage would increase a single mom's household income by $10,000-$17,000 a year--not nearly enough to close the gap. Without state-subsidized daycare, her hypothetical mother couldn't afford to work at all, married or not.

The argument that marriage can lift a woman and her children out of poverty also assumes that she has decent marital prospects. Current research shows that half of all unmarried new parents are living together when their babies are born and hope to marry at some point. Often, however, the economic prospects of the father-to-be are no better than the mother's.

"Precisely because marriage offers economic advantages, individuals tend to seek potential spouses who have good earnings potential and to avoid marriage when they do not feel they or their potential mates can comfortably support a family," Coontz writes. "Ethnographic research shows that low-income women see economic stability on the part of a prospective partner as a necessary precondition for marriage. Not surprisingly, men increasingly use the same calculus. Rather than looking for someone they can 'rescue' from poverty, employed men are much more likely to marry women who themselves have good employment prospects."

According to Princeton University's Center for Research on Child Well-Being, unmarried fathers are twice as likely as married ones to have a physical or psychological problem that prohibits steady employment, and several times more likely to have a drug or alcohol problem. Meanwhile, getting a stepfather is sometimes worse for the kids than continuing to live with a stable single mother.

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