In February President Bush unveiled proposals for changing the 1996 welfare reform law, which Congress must reauthorize this year. Included is a proposal to provide up to $300 million for state-based initiatives “focusing on family formation and healthy marriage activities.” While the goal of stable families is laudable, the focus on marriage is misguided.
The welfare program’s goals already mention strengthening two-parent families. The President’s plan would explicitly state the goal as “to encourage the formation and maintenance of healthy two parent married families and responsible fatherhood.”
If the President’s proposal were only about educating couples that wish to marry on how to cope with married life or on how to be responsible parents, it might be easy to support. However the President, by focusing specifically on marriage within the context of the welfare program, suggests that marriage is the answer to poverty. It isn’t.
Children can benefit from growing up in two-parent families, but only if those families are stable socially and economically. Wedding vows do not guarantee familial bliss or a free ticket out of poverty.
Parents split. Divorce is common among all social strata from the poor to members of Congress – even some from Oregon. In Oregon, 14 percent of women are divorced and single, the second highest in the nation.
If government coerces couples to marry and it turns out badly, will government tell them they can’t divorce? Shotgun weddings, especially when the government holds the gun, are not an auspicious way to begin a marriage.
Promoting marriage shifts the focus away from a more important, less romantic, issue: single parents need resources to find and keep living wage employment, to feed their families, and to raise healthy children in a safe environment. Marriage doesn’t guarantee these resources.
A two-parent family with two young children and one wage earner making eight dollars an hour is still in poverty. If both parents work they will probably need to spend a significant portion of their income on child care. If both parents are unskilled or live in an area with chronic high unemployment, such as much of rural Oregon, full-time employment may be hard to find.
In 1991-93, Oregon helped children in 3,752 struggling two-parent households on average each month with cash assistance and a ticket for the parents into the state’s welfare-to-work program. Under welfare reform Oregon now helps about 1,000 two-parent families each month. Before Oregon starts a new government matchmaking program, it first ought to reopen its doors to children in un- and underemployed two-parent families.
Oregon should also place greater emphasis on education. Instead of promoting MRS degrees, Oregon should promote high school and college education. A single mother with a high school degree or less is four times more likely to be poor than a single mother with a college degree or higher. If she doesn’t have a high school degree she is six times more likely to be poor.
Yet, one out of five poor women Oregon diverts from or pushes out of the welfare safety net lacks even a high school degree or a GED.
The President’s marriage proposal is dangerous because it relies on fiction: namely, that the only thing missing from a single mother’s life is a man to take care of her. It appeals to the hopeless romantic, and that isn’t rational.
Furthermore, the $300 million is a political valentine to those who, when is comes to single mothers, are more concerned about sin than about sustenance.
We don’t need an Oregon matchmaking agency. Our Congressional delegation should not get involved in this illusion.