- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Marriage could be a direct path out of poverty for many poor young couples who have babies out of wedlock, say researchers who have analyzed data from a national study on “fragile families.”

In financial terms alone, single mothers who married would see an increase of $10,199 to $11,599 in their median family incomes, said Heritage Foundation analyst Patrick F. Fagan, who wrote the report with colleagues Robert Rector, Kirk A. Johnson and Lauren R. Noyes.

These findings support the Bush administration’s plan to allocate up to $300 million a year in welfare funds for pro-marriage education and activities in low-income communities.

“By encouraging marriage, we’re encouraging a policy that will benefit all of us,” Mr. Fagan said.

Marriage is an income-builder for these couples because it is more permanent and stable than cohabiting, according to numerous other studies on the matter.Even though as many as half of new parents live together, only 9 percent marry within a year. Thus, within a few years, most relationships split up and mothers and children live in poverty.

The Heritage Foundation report’s findings may be discussed today as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) opens a three-day Washington conference on welfare reform.

The focus of today’s session will be marriage, family structure and children’s well-being. Wade F. Horn, HHS assistant secretary for children and families and a proponent of marriage in welfare reform, is scheduled to speak at the conference at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel.

In February, the House passed its bill to reauthorize welfare reform. The Senate Finance Committee is expected to have a similar bill near the end of June.

Feminist and antipoverty groups have criticized the idea of using welfare funds to promote marriage.

Such a policy “coercively intrudes on fundamentally private decisions” and heightens risks for abuse of women, said the National Organization for Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“And most importantly,” the group added, it “sends the message that the way out of poverty for women is dependence on someone else to act as a breadwinner, rather than economic self-sufficiency.”

But researchers at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based conservative think tank, said “new light has been shed” on the topic by the ongoing Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, conducted by researchers with Princeton and Columbia universities.

The five-year, ongoing project involves some 4,700 new parents who are low-income and typically unmarried. It seeks to answer questions about these “fragile” families’ relationships and activities as well as how they are affected by policies on family formation and child well-being.

Almost 50 percent of the unwed couples are romantically involved and living together, and an additional 23 percent are romantically involved, the university report shows.

In addition, the fathers had median annual earnings of $17,500 and 67 percent had at least a high school degree. Only a minority were reported to have problem behaviors — 12 percent of the mothers reported having recently argued with their partners about substance abuse and less than 2 percent said their partners had slapped or harmed them.

Using computer simulation, the Heritage researchers concluded that marriage would significantly reduce poverty in these families.

For instance, 55 percent of single mothers who work part time live in poverty. If these mothers married, however, their poverty rate would plummet to 17 percent, the researchers wrote.

Marriage has a significant impact for single mothers who don’t work. These welfare mothers who remain single will live in poverty 100 percent of the time because welfare benefits rarely, if ever, lift a family out of poverty, the researchers said.

“By contrast, if the mother marries the child’s father, the poverty rate drops dramatically to 35 percent. In other words, nearly two-thirds of the non-married fathers … earn enough by themselves to support a family above poverty without any employment on the part of the mother,” they said.

Couples who are romantically involved and swept up in the “magic moment” of a child’s birth would be good candidates for pro-marriage activities funded under welfare reform, the researchers concluded.

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