Commentary: Washington's $1 Billion Lecture To The Poor

Why a pro-marriage bill isn't likely to help much

The decline of the two-parent family has long prompted conservative hand-wringing. The Bush Administration, however, is on the case. As part of a welfare bill moving through Congress, the President seems poised to win $1 billion over five years to promote marriage. The funds could be used for a national ad campaign championing the benefits of wedlock, for premarital counseling services, and for instruction in high schools.

It's certainly true that children do better when they're raised by married biological parents -- provided the relationship is relatively friction-free. And there's ample evidence that teaching middle-class couples communication skills can be helpful in keeping fragile unions together. But the President's plan to spread the marriage gospel in poor communities is likely to do little to salvage the troubled institution.

The biggest problem with the scheme, which Congress is likely to approve now that a key Senate committee passed it in September, is that it turns a blind eye to the broader issues that plague many poor households. As Rachel Gragg, a social policy expert at the Center for Community Change, a liberal advocacy group, puts it: "It's hard to devote yourself to a relationship when you're worried about whether you can buy food, pay the rent, and keep your kids safe."

A more effective approach would be to fund a variety of assistance programs that promote marriage in more indirect ways. For example, an initiative Minnesota tried a few years ago lifted marriage rates in impoverished communities by helping to improve the economic stability of families. Even though the Minnesota Family Investment Program made a big difference, it was expensive and wasn't renewed when the initial experiment came to an end. How did the MFIP manage to lift marriage rates? The program allowed parents on welfare to continue to collect benefits even after they found jobs as long as their earnings didn't exceed the poverty threshold (now $14,500 for a family of three) by more than 40%. By allowing welfare checks to be combined with income from work, the MFIP helped to keep couples together and made marriage seem a more viable option.

While Bush's pro-marriage bill may be a heartfelt response to the decline of the traditional family, most of the money would probably wind up helping middle-class couples. Why? Similar experiments by several states show that they're the ones who are easiest to sign up, while welfare moms are more difficult to reach. It would help children's well-being if more were raised within healthy marriages. But the Administration's plan may be more of an exercise in good intentions than effective social policy.

By Alexandra Starr

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