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The Bush Administration has proposed to include new goals and funding in the federal welfare law for states to promote marriage among welfare recipients. The proposal is based on the assertion that the absence of marriage causes poverty and that marriage, per se, is good for children and for the country.

But the proposal raises troubling questions. The first is whether the evidence actually shows a clear and causal relationship between marriage and the amelioration of poverty, or whether, in fact, both marriage patterns and measures of children’s well being are reflections of economic conditions. The second question is whether the federal government can or should play this particular role in promoting marriage and whether, as a corollary, some of the policies that may result from such a federal mandate to the states will discriminate against poor women and improperly limit their right to make private decisions about family formation, sexuality and sexual orientation. The proposal also raises the question of whether marriage promotion programs may coerce welfare recipients into entering into or remaining in bad marriages that increase the risk of domestic violence against themselves or their children.

This PCSW Working Paper offers the following analysis:

* The research studies cited in support of marriage promotion that are characterized as proving that marriage itself reduces poverty and leads to better outcomes for children significantly over-state the case with respect to the data , and make an assumption about causality that is based on ideology and belief rather than on social science.

* Both the public and the private sectors of our society are already structured in countless ways to support a specific type of family considered “traditional” or “normal” — that is, a nuclear family with two parents in the home. (Although it is important to note that this particular family type is not nearly “the norm,” representing only 24% of all American families, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. ) We should not be surprised, therefore, when such families and their children sometimes do better – economically and on other measures of social well-being – than other families. The relative success of such families proves only that they and the systems of social support are a better match.

* We can improve the life-chances of children by creating opportunities to increase the income and assets of their parents and caretakers and by creating the conditions for loving and responsible adults to be part of their lives. There are a variety of policy options available to invest in families and broaden the systems of social support that will allow more families to succeed. Some examples are the Earned Income Tax Credit program; Family Temporary Disability insurance so that family members can afford to stay home when necessary for a child or ill family member; greater flex-time on the job; expansion of health insurance coverage; Individual Development Accounts to encourage savings and asset growth; responsible fatherhood programs; and expansion of affordable, quality childcare. (Author abstract)

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