- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2003

Government should be involved in promoting marriage because it benefits children, builds assets and fits most people’s personal goals, a federal official said last week at a welfare-reform conference.

“It’s time to reorient our social services delivery system from one that has been afraid to even mention the word ‘marriage’ to one that provides supports for couples who are interested in forming and sustaining a healthy marriage,” said Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary of children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services.

“I’ve never met a couple yet who, when they were walking down the aisle, said, ‘What we want is three years of happiness, two years of [torment], a messy divorce and 15 years of fighting over custody of the kids,’” Mr. Horn told 300 welfare officials and researchers at the HHS-sponsored conference.

“What we’re trying to do is help couples achieve the aspirations that they already have for themselves for a healthy marriage.”

To that end, the Bush administration is asking Congress to allocate as much as $1.5 billion in welfare funds during five years for demonstration projects on marriage education and promotion, he said. Work, combined with a healthy marriage, boosts incomes, he added.

The conference, which featured research on work, child care, nutrition and education, dedicated a day to marriage-related issues, which several observers said was unprecedented.

Heritage Foundation analyst Robert Rector presented his recent paper that projects that as much as 73 percent of the 4,700 mostly poor and unmarried new parents in the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study were “marriageable.”

If even modest numbers of these couples married, family poverty would drop significantly because they would combine their households and incomes, Mr. Rector said.

Other researchers, including Irwin Garfinkel of Columbia University, looked at the same study and saw more modest potential for marriage, and criticized the study as defining “marriageable” too loosely.

Couples who are not romantically involved, domestic-violence cases, and couples with serious mental health or unemployment issues constitute about two-thirds of the parents, Mr. Garfinkel said, leaving about one-third as likely to respond to marriage programs.

Marriage promotion is fine, Mr. Garfinkel added, but welfare programs have to be changed to “make marriage pay.” As they are now, he said, “couples have more incentives to cohabit than marry.”

Outside the conference, questions abound about whether marriage is being overpromoted as a solution to poverty.

The new Heritage study seems “very misleading,” said Wendell Primus, a former Clinton administration official who is minority staff director for the Joint Economic Committee in Congress.

The paper appears to assume that cohabiting parents do not share income, but data from the fragile-families study show that 54 percent of cohabiting couples pool their money. “If you assume that income is shared when cohabiting, most of the Heritage results would go away,” Mr. Primus said.

A recent paper by Ohio State University professor Daniel T. Lichter found that although marriage benefited most low-income mothers, subsequent divorce left them worse off than never-married women.

“Put simply,” he wrote, “is marriage an economic panacea or are marriage proponents overstating the benefits?”

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