Washington Post

The Left's Marriage Problem

The Washington Post
Friday, April 5, 2002; Page A22

IT'S NO SLIGHT to single mothers to point out that, on average, their children face a rougher go of it than those of married couples. Children of single parents face greater risk of problems at school or work, in part because they are so much more likely to grow up poor: In 2000, 40 percent of children of single mothers were poor. That's five times the poverty rate of children with married parents.

So there's something puzzling about the reflexive hostility among some liberals to the not-so-shocking idea that for poor mothers, getting married might in some cases do more good than harm. Why not find out whether helping mothers -- and fathers -- tackle the challenging task of getting and staying married could help families find their way out of poverty? This is the question raised by the Bush administration's proposals for welfare reform's next stage, and it seems to us a useful debate could be had about its merits: about why kids in two-parent marriages do better, and whether government could provide any appropriate incentive that reasonable people could accept.

But much of the left, and particularly the feminist left, doesn't seem interested in such a conversation. The administration, in its reauthorization plan for the 1996 welfare reform bill, would allocate $300 million yearly to state programs that "reduce nonmarital births and increase the percentage of children in married-couple families." It would be up to states to decide what sort of programs to implement. The possibilities are broad, yet the liberal reaction has been narrow: "Shotgun welfare betrothals" is how Robert Kuttner put it in the American Prospect. The antipathy was perhaps quickest and most insistent from the National Organization for Women. "I think back to when I was a teenager, and I would hear my grandmother's friends say, 'Honey, when are you going to get married?' " says NOW President Kim A. Gandy. "I would no more say to someone else: 'You ought to get married,' as though I knew what's best for them."

Excuse us, but helping poor people navigate marriage is not the same thing as putting old-fashioned pressure on middle-class girls to get hitched. It's true there are possibilities under the Bush plan that give pause; is it fair, for example, to pay married recipients more than single ones? But it's wrong to suggest that any marriage promotion is equivalent to pushing women into abusive marriages. The Bush document specifically seeks to encourage "healthy marriage," a qualifier inserted in recognition that children in high-conflict marriages do not, in fact, do better.

For decades, welfare discouraged marriage among the poor. With few exceptions, before the 1996 reforms welfare payments were made only to unmarried recipients, giving men an incentive to walk away. Many states have eliminated this disincentive, and the rest should be pushed to follow suit. Beyond that return to neutrality, maybe government shouldn't meddle. But imaginative state programs may be worth a try, particularly if conducted rigorously enough to evaluate results. "Right now we really don't know what it takes to build positive relationships among high-risk couples, and this is something that does need new research," says Kristin Moore, president of the nonpartisan research group Child Trends, who believes that small state programs could yield useful models. What, beyond tired ideology, is the argument against that?

© 2002 The Washington Post Company