Welfare reform hasn't led to more marriage - yet

Policy changes didn't produce more two-parent families, latest data show. Should US do more to push for vows?

If the Bush administration is looking for more support for its controversial $1.5 billion marriage-education proposal, two new studies could help make its case.

The studies, published in the journal Demography last month, suggest that current welfare polices are having little effect on encouraging marriage and two-parent families.

Results like that are what fuel the Bush camp's argument that strengthening marriages needs to be addressed head on by the government, if the nation is to further whittle the number of people on welfare.

"My overall conclusion, from looking at these studies - and they're consistent with others - is that when it comes to marriage, doing nothing doesn't work," says Wade Horn, assistant secretary for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services. "So let's try doing something."

The latest research shows that fewer new marriages have happened since the 1996 welfare reform law was passed. (There have also been fewer divorces.) But current policies are doing little to keep women from becoming or remaining single parents.

Interest in those issues is high, because the 1996 welfare reform law set out to encourage more unions and two-parent homes - in part by making marriage more economically attractive.

The tepid results aren't a surprise to Dr. Horn. "Almost nothing has been done in the context of welfare reform, until very recently, in support of the goals of the 1996 legislation, which included support for the formation of two-parent married households," he says.

The president's proposal, which could be adopted by Congress when it eventually reauthorizes the welfare reform law, would allocate $1.5 million over a five-year period to implement marriage-education programs aimed at helping low-income couples better handle conflicts in their relationships. The program hopes to encourage those who are single to get married and those who are married not to divorce.

Part of the problem with implementing policy about marriage is that researchers are still learning about how women and men receiving welfare feel about being married, given current laws, and about how marriage could impact this group socially and economically.

The lack of information has some concerned that more study needs to be done before policies that address marriage in a direct way are implemented.

"If we're going ahead with the assumption that this is going to result in better economic and social outcomes for women and their children, that's a very large assumption that has not been supported by the research, " says Rukmalie Jayakody, an associate professor of human development, family studies, and demography at Penn State University. "We really have a lot to learn before we institute policies on these issues."

Researchers in the latest studies, who studied vital statistics and income surveys, posit that in the case of marriage and divorce, welfare may have different effects on those who are single and those who are married.

If welfare reform demands that a single woman work more hours, for example, she might not feel the need to be married because her income is higher and she's more independent. A married woman, on the other hand, might choose to stay married because the reforms would require her to work more if she were single. Researchers say cultural and economic factors often play a role in these decisions.

"We can say with some confidence that welfare reform is not 'pro-marriage' on balance," write the authors of "The Impact of Welfare Reform on Marriage and Divorce."

Other researchers, who looked at data on female heads of households - reported in the "Welfare Reform and Female Headship" study - say rules like those limiting the amount of time recipients can claim welfare benefits in their lifetimes appear to have little or no effect on women changing their living arrangements.

"One must be very careful about claims that [the 1996 welfare reform] changes are going to encourage marriage and reduce the number of single-mother families," says John Fitzgerald, a professor of economics at Bowdoin College and one of the study's authors.

"It may take additional time before we see the full impact, but at this point, one should be very cautious in making claims that this had the government's desired effect of encouraging two-parent families," he adds.

While it might appear from the studies that marriage isn't responsive to policy changes, the funds and programs in the administration's proposal would be directed toward couples who are already married or heading in that direction. That's the opposite of the new studies' focus on policies that affect single- parent families, says David Ribar, coauthor of the female heads of households study and a professor of economics at George Washington University who recently worked as a visiting research analyst at the Administration for Children & Families.

For his part, Horn says the marriage promotion idea is about adding to what's provided to welfare recipients, not taking away. "We provide all sorts of services to low-income families" - child care, work supports, employment, cash benefits. "We're even willing to provide relationship skills training, so long as it's about friendships and dating relationships," he continues. "We're willing to provide parenting education. The one thing that we seem unwilling to provide that low-income couples say they want, is marriage education services."

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