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Marriage Promotion Programs For Welfare Recipients

by Linda Ostreicher, May 18, 2004
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It is a truth universally acknowledged, at least among Republicans, that a single mother on public assistance must be in want of a husband. To that end, the President’s Healthy Marriage Initiative is built into the welfare reauthorization bill passed by the House of Representatives in the fall of 2003, and its Senate counterpart, stalled by a Democratic filibuster in April 2004.

Federal law already allows states to use public assistance funds to promote marriage, an option few have chosen. The only step New York State has taken toward marriage promotion is to allow two-parent families to receive public assistance even if one of them works full-time, as long as their income is low enough.

Wade Horn, the nation’s Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, leads the effort to channel roughly $300 million a year into marriage promotion programs, and make them a mandatory part of every state’s welfare program. The Healthy Marriage Initiative suggests measures such as cash bonuses for welfare recipients who marry, and penalties for those who do not take part in marriage promotion activities.

Horn has equated opposition to this policy to saying, “We want to make sure low-income couples don’t have the same access that higher income couples have to a service that we know can help them build strong and healthy marriages.”

The Local Marriage Promotion Market

New York City differs from the rest of the United States in two ways crucial to the goals of marriage promotion programs. There are more women in situations that make them targets of such programs, and there are fewer men for them to marry.

The “traditional family” of a married mother and father, living with their own children, makes up only 18 percent of NYC households, compared to 24 percent of households nationwide. In the country as a whole, fewer than one in four families with children are headed by a single woman: in New York City, 36 percent of families with children have this structure. While one in three single American mothers and their children live in poverty, nearly one in two (44 percent) of New York’s single mothers and their children are poor.

What these numbers mean is that nine percent of families with children in New York City are impoverished and headed by single women, and thus candidates for marriage promotion programs. This is more than twice the rate in the nation as a whole.

Who is available for these women to marry? They need husbands who have jobs, or marriage will only dig them deeper into poverty. But in March 2004, the unemployment rate in New York City was still considerably higher, at 7.9 percent, than the 5.7 percent rate nationwide. The city has a disproportionate share of former inmates of prisons and mental institutions, and of men who are HIV-positive, most of whom have difficulty finding and keeping jobs. It is also a center of gay culture, which means that gay men and women are less inclined than they might be elsewhere to marry a member of the opposite sex to hide their sexual identity (and needless to say, the Bush administration is not spending money to promote gay marriage; indeed it is promoting a ban on gay marriage) Finally, at a time when women of color make up two-thirds of the city’s female population, only half of African-American men have jobs.!

Which Comes First, A Job Or A Wedding?

Researchers agree that well-adjusted children are most likely to be found in stable homes, living with a biological father and mother who are married to each other. What is more controversial is whether government could -- or should --- steer more parents into this living arrangement.

The first argument against marriage promotion is that it may not be effective. Two-parent households are richer than single-parent households, but this does not mean that getting married will increase a couple’s income. The statistics could also be attributed to the fact that the same qualities that make a parent employable also make him or her an attractive marriage partner.

A nationwide study of childbearing by unwed mothers found that single fathers were twice as likely as married ones to have a disability that made it difficult to work, and several times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. Among couples interviewed for the study in New York City, a third of the fathers had not worked in the past year. The interviews took place in 2000, when the economy was strong and unemployment was relatively low. ( See The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, Baseline City Report: New York City [in pdf format])

Most marriage education programs have been tested on middle-class couples, and even with them, the results are not clear. And there has been no research comparing marriage promotion to programs that improved parents’ ability to earn a living. Much of the poverty of families headed by a single mother is due to lack of education and good jobs. Among children whose single mothers have full-time jobs and college degrees, only one percent are poor.

"Happy Families Are All Alike; Every Unhappy Family Is Unhappy In Its Own Way."

Even if research showed that the majority of children benefit from marriage promotion programs, they might still be inadvisable, if a small minority of parents and/or children were severely harmed by them. Domestic violence is at least twice as common among women on welfare as among the general public, with most estimates as high as 60 percent. Yet only one out of at least ten women on public assistance tells her welfare caseworker that she is being abused. This indicates that states might not be able to identify women in abusive situations, and might instead steer them into marriage with their abusers.

Some states are considering making it harder for people to divorce, as a way of encouraging marriages to last. This could be dangerous, in light of a study that compared changes in the rates of suicide, homicide, and domestic violence between states that liberalized their divorce laws and states that did not. Over a thirty-year period, researchers found women were less likely to kill themselves, and to be killed by their partners, in states that liberalized their divorce laws. No similar pattern was seen for men. Reports of domestic violence by both men and women were also lower in states allowing unilateral divorce. [Bargaining in the Shadow of the Law: Divorce Laws and Family Distress (in PDF format)]

In New York City, divorces are almost 50 percent more likely to happen in the first five years of marriage than in the rest of the state. This may explain why only a third of city divorces involve couples with children, compared to more than half of the divorces elsewhere in the state. If a couple is going to get divorced, it is preferable that they do so before having children rather than after. It would be a sad paradox if marriage counseling encouraged incompatible couples either to have children earlier in their marriages, or to stay together longer, resulting in more divorces taking place after children were born.

An Old-Fashioned Stigma Returns?

Supporters of marriage promotion programs include groups that encourage churchgoing, traditional women’s roles, and responsible fatherhood, and oppose divorce and gay marriage. Many of these groups use the term “illegitimate” to describe children born out of wedlock. A particularly cruel result of government emphasis on marriage for parents could be a belief among children of unwed parents that they are not legitimate human beings.

Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits.

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