Wedded to Marriage

Invest now or pay later?

August 9, 2005

Wade F. Horn



The recently released report from the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University — "The State of Our Unions, 2005" — is the latest in a series of such reports to document our cultural retreat from marriage. Although divorce rates have declined from all-time highs in the early 1980s, more men and women are cohabiting — many of them with children — rather than marrying.

This is not good news; at least not for children. That's because research consistently finds that cohabiting relationships are far more unstable than marriage. Wherever one finds family instability, an increased risk of problems for children follows with all the associated impacts on social institutions and the demand for more (and more expensive) governmental interventions.

In contrast, healthy and stable marriages support children and limit the need for government programs. Whether the problem is abuse, neglect, or poverty, research clearly shows the best chance a child has of avoiding these problems is to grow up with their mom and dad in a stable, healthy marriage.

In the face of these trends, some counsel resignation. High divorce rates and increasing cohabitation rates are simply a reflection of modernity, they say, and besides, there is not much anyone can do about it.

We disagree. Armed with compelling research that shows that children do best when reared in healthy, stable, two-parent households, three years ago President Bush launched his Healthy Marriage Initiative. The initiative's goal is to help couples who choose marriage for themselves gain greater access, on a voluntary basis, to services where they can develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain a healthy marriage. The initiative is based on solid research indicating that what separates stable and healthy marriages from unstable and unhealthy ones is not the frequency of conflict, but how couples manage conflict. The good news is that through marriage education, healthy conflict-resolution skills can be taught.

The president's Healthy Marriage Initiative is a centerpiece of welfare-reform reauthorization bills currently before both houses of Congress. The reason why the president's Healthy Marriage Initiative mainly targets low-income couples is not because we believe marriage is particularly problematic in low-income communities, but because unlike more affluent couples, low-income couples either do not have the resources to purchase marriage-education services or those services are not currently available in their community. The aim, then, of the president's Healthy Marriage Initiative is to give low-income couples greater access to marriage-education services and thereby improve their chances of forming healthy, stable marriages.

But, some libertarians and fiscal conservatives worry, is this initiative really consistent with a conservative's view of limited government? Good question. Here's our answer: First, the president's Healthy Marriage Initiative does not add a penny to the federal budget. Rather, our plan simply redirects money from two existing incentive funds under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, incentive funds which most impartial observers agree have not been particularly effective.

Second, rather than an expansion of government, the president's Healthy Marriage Initiative is an exercise in limited government. Here's how: I run the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. My agency spends $46 billion per year operating 65 different social programs. If one goes down the list of these programs — from child welfare, to child-support enforcement, to anti-poverty assistance to runaway-youth initiatives — the need for each is either created or exacerbated by the breakup of families and marriages. It doesn't take a Ph.D. to understand that controlling the growth of these programs depends on preventing problems from happening in the first place. One way to accomplish that — not the only way, of course, but one way — is to help couples form and sustain healthy marriages.

Indeed, government is most intrusive into family life when marriages fail. If you don't believe it, try getting married, having kids and then getting a divorce. If you are a non-custodial parent, government will tell you when you can see your children; whether you can pick them up after school or not, and if so, on what days; whether you can authorize medical care for your children; and how much money you must spend on your kids. By preventing marital breakup in the first place — not by making divorce harder to get, but by increasing the odds of a stable marriage by increasing marital health and happiness — one obviates the need for such intrusive government.

The good news is that welfare reform has been a tremendous success. A pernicious culture of dependency was transformed into one that is now focused on helping those on welfare obtain and maintain employment. As a result, welfare rolls have decreased by 60 percent since 1960; earnings by single-parent-headed households are at all-time high; and child poverty has declined significantly, particularly for African-American and Hispanic children.

The job, however, is not done. One of the main goals of welfare reform is to increase the proportion of children growing up in two-parent married households. The president's Healthy Marriage Initiative, by offering voluntary marriage-education services to those who can't afford them, will strengthen marriage and prevent expensive, painful and oftentimes intractable social problems for children. It's a common-sense ounce of prevention that will help temper the demand for a pound of costly social interventions later.

Wade F. Horn is the assistant secretary for children and families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.



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