PALO ALTO, CALIF. — 'Erosion of marriage is the principal cause of child poverty, welfare dependence, higher emotional instability in children, and higher crime rates for children."
So writes Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert in the April 11 New York Times. Mr. Hastert's simplified version of cause and effect does not mean he is wrong. The breakdown of traditional marriage and the rise of single parenting do indeed contribute to many of society's ills, most notably those concerning children. Few people disagree that it is generally better for a child to be brought up by two parents, biological or otherwise, than to be raised by a single parent.
In this respect, however, Hastert and the Bush administration are being willfully blind. By focusing on marriage per se, they veer away from the greater issue the well-being of children.
Plans to spend $500 million to shore up marriage through premarital education and divorce-reduction programs may please the religious right, but will this money filter down to the children? Why not also focus directly on child-related programs, such as parental leave and child care?
Yes, 1 out of 2 marriages in the United States ends in divorce, and 40 percent of first babies are born out of wedlock.
These statistics represent a significant change in American practices since World War II, and they do give cause for concern, but they are by no means unique to the US. Divorce, serial marriage, and unwed mothers are ubiquitous in the industrialized West, and even more prominent in certain nations, such as Great Britain and Sweden, where more than 50 percent of babies are born to unmarried women.
Yet in these and other European countries, single parenting is not quite so onerous for mothers (or fathers) as it is here and does not have the same devastating consequences for children.
Why not? Perhaps because most European governments underwrite the medical costs associated with pregnancy and childbirth, provide for maternal or parental leave, and subsidize various forms of day care.
Although not all European countries offer a full year of paid leave after a baby's birth, which is the norm in Denmark and Sweden, all offer something far beyond the unpaid 12-week leave that American working mothers are entitled to by the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. And even that benefit is not required of companies with fewer than 50 employees.
Similarly, most European countries also have subsidized day-care centers, along the lines of the French system inaugurated more than six decades ago. While these supports do not solve all problems, they do alleviate them, so that a working mother can take time off to have a baby and stay at home for as much as a year, without falling into poverty. Moreover, subsidized day care makes it possible for a parent to return to work without pouring all one's salary into child care.
Even if many of us continue to believe that marriage provides a fine framework for love, sex, companionship, mutual support, and children, it cannot, in and of itself, answer the economic and social problems facing families today.
More and more we are coming to realize that the relationship between two people, however sanctified, is not enough to secure the healthy survival of the next generation. We need extended-family, community, corporate and government help. This is especially true for single parents, who are not going to go away.
As Congress prepares to reauthorize the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, and as Republicans try to push their marriage-oriented package, remember that the great economic divide in America is between mothers and everyone else.
It is true that the wage gap between women and men is no longer as bad as it once was. Women workers across the board now earn about 90 percent of what men earn unless they are mothers. Mothers earn only about 70 percent, which means that having a child reduces one's income exactly when it is most needed. If Americans are truly concerned with the welfare of children, they should be giving direct support to mothers and their offspring, rather than filtering that support through the troubled institution of marriage.
Helping mothers take time off for childbirth, nursing, and infant care, and providing affordable preschool possibilities may, paradoxically, produce some of the benefits envisioned by the Bush marriage-encouragement program, since the birth of a baby is one of the known causes for major stress on couples, married or unmarried.
If we want couples to stay together, especially after the birth of a child, let us put money into programs that really matter. Struggling parents couples or single moms and dads will tell you nothing would make a greater difference than to be able to have paid maternal or paternal leave after a child is born and for that child to be assured of quality preschool care.
This is not an unattainable dream. The allocation of $500 million to those ends would be a good beginning.
Marilyn Yalom is a senior scholar at the the Stanford Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the author of 'A History of the Wife' (HarperCollins, 2001).