- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 17, 2000

For too many children, Father's Day 2000 will lack the central ingredient: a father to celebrate with. In what U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman calls the greatest social crisis of our times, more than 71 million children don't live with their biological father and 17 million don't live with a father at all.

Obviously, couples make marriage decisions based on many factors. However, virtually all pre-nuptials consider finances as at least one variable. Policy-makers must therefore carefully consider the impact tax and benefit policies have on family formation. To date, the track record is not so good.

A judge in Fairfax recently made news when he pulled $250 from his wallet and gave it to a couple appearing before his court facing eviction. Speaking through a sign language interpreter, the couple explained they began to run into trouble following their marriage last October. They anticipated their union would save money, but later learned that the wife's disability payments would decrease from $500 per month to zero when she added "Mrs." before her name.

This scenario has long shadowed the welfare world. During the mid-1990s, I visited an agency that counseled the young and poor in Milwaukee. When I asked about the case workers' message regarding marriage, the director replied that it depended on the program. Under the old welfare system, case workers would tell the couple not to marry because it would hurt them financially. But under a demonstration project that was under way eliminating the welfare marriage penalty, couples would get the green light.

The state of Minnesota conducted a similar experiment that eliminated the same marriage penalty. In an evaluation of the program released in early June, researchers found that for the first time, changes in welfare policies led to increased employment and marital stability. Happily, the 1996 federal welfare reform law took the welfare marriage penalty off the books for good.

Another area in need of policy-makers' attention is the tax system. Much has been made of the marriage penalty imposed by the IRS, and signals from Washington seem to indicate that relief may be in the not-too-distant future.

Less understood is the extreme tax burden placed on the working poor. Hudson Institute Adjunct Fellow Patrick Anderson argues that the Reagan-era reforms did much to lessen the income tax burden of low-income wage earners. In 1999, an individual paid no income tax on the first $7,050 of earnings while a couple escaped the federal taxman for up to $14,450 of earnings. However, these same folks are subject to nearly 20 percent payroll tax charges for such items as Social Security and Medicare. Mr. Anderson calls for state earned income tax credits to offset the payroll tax burden.

Congress has turned its attention to the dilemma of fatherlessness in the form of a "Fathers Count" bill that would add $140 million for community-based parenting classes and job training programs. Many states are paying for similar services through increased public and private investment.

All this recent activity has undoubtedly made some headway, particularly in the economic realm. Yet there is no evidence that Americans today place any more value on healthy family formation, whether rich or poor, black or white.

Policy and legislation can impact lives at the margin, but neither can love a child or nurture a family member.

The fundamental problems that damage families, namely divorce and out-of-wedlock childbirth, beg moral questions rather than economic deliberations. And value-shaping institutions rather than the statehouse or city hall can best provide answers to these difficult questions. Perhaps the guiding principle for government should be to borrow the medical profession's Hippocratic Oath ("first, do no harm"). If we can at least make legal and economic factors more favorable to marriage, then the church and other mediating institutions can do the hard work of changing hearts and minds.

The public policy debate has at least settled the question of whether dad is needed. The next step will be to replace kids' main challenge from finding dad, to finding dad a Father's Day gift that isn't a necktie.

Jay Hein is senior fellow and director of the Welfare Policy Center for the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis.

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