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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Decreasing Nonmarital Births and Strengthening Marriage to Reduce Poverty
Paul R. Amato Rebecca A. Maynard


Some observers will object to these proposals by arguing that government should not intervene in arrangements as private as childbearing and marriage. But the high rates of nonmarital births and divorce impose substantial costs on the American public. Teen childbearing alone cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $7.3 billion in 2004.71 One scholar has estimated that each divorce costs U.S. society about $30,000, which represents $30 billion every year.72 The cost includes heavy caseloads in family courts, the hiring of court personnel (such as counselors and mediators), the use of public assistance by many recently divorced mothers and their children, the loss of work productivity because of divorce-related stress, declining academic success among children, and higher rates of teen delinquency. The cost is even higher when one considers how marital conflict itself affects work productivity. One study estimated that the days of work lost because of marital distress translate into nearly $7 billion a year.73 Programs to reduce nonmarital births and strengthen marriage could reduce these costs substantially. Under our proposal, participation in government-subsidized marriage and relationship education programs will be voluntary. Thus, the programs will not infringe on individual liberties. Moreover, most couples who participate in these programs find them to be useful and worthwhile.74

Although marriage promotion programs may benefit many couples, they may produce unintended negative consequences, particularly of an economic nature, for some couples— especially poor couples with children. For example, if a poor single mother marries her partner, and if her partner is employed, her family income will increase. This rise in income, however, means that the mother and her children are likely to lose some meanstested government benefits. The overall effect of marriage on a family’s standard of living is complex, and it depends on the amount of the husband’s earnings, as well as the specific benefits that mothers and children were receiving before marriage. Single mothers who received a wide range of benefits, and whose new husbands earn low to moderate income, may be worse off economically following marriage.75 Nevertheless, most cohabiting couples with children who marry will enjoy improved economic well-being because of planned increases in the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit.76 Despite these changes in tax laws, policymakers should consider policies that allow mothers and their children to continue to receive government assistance for a period of time following marriage.

The long-term benefits of marriage also depend on whether mothers stay married. One study found that marriage offsets the economic disadvantage of becoming a single mother, provided that the couple remains together. 77 The marriages of previously single mothers, however, are less stable than other marriages. The same study found that single mothers who married but then divorced were worse off economically in the long run than were single mothers who did not marry—a finding that may largely reflect selection effects. Other research shows that multiple family transitions are associated with higher risks of behavioral and emotional problems among children.78 These findings reinforce the importance of developing marriage and relationship education programs that attend to special needs of low-income couples.

One difficulty encountered in marriage education programs is that sometimes only one partner shows up for training—usually the woman. This problem may be especially pronounced among low-income couples. But a single partner may still benefit from learning communication and conflict-resolution skills and then modeling them in her relationship. In this manner, the relationship may still benefit even if only one partner attends—though not as much as if both do so. It is important to think creatively about how to get reluctant low-income men to participate in marriage education programs, perhaps by moving training sessions to more “masculine” settings, such as the workplace, or to familiar community settings, such as churches. Another possibility is to link marriage programs with job training programs for unemployed men. It may also be useful to stress that premarital education differs from therapy, on the assumption that men (and some women) are more likely to respond positively to educational than to therapeutic interventions. Men also may be more likely to attend when workshops are run by men rather than women, which suggests the importance of recruiting and training providers of both genders. The same principle applies to recruiting and training providers from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. We suspect that increasing the motivation of men to participate would at least partly offset the tendency of some low-income couples to attend sessions sporadically. An alternative would be to provide a modest cash incentive (or its equivalent in gifts) to low-income couples who complete the program successfully.

One problem that typical marriage programs may not address is that a single mother is likely to marry a man who is not the father of her child (or at least not the father of some of her children). Many children of single mothers who marry (or remarry) thus live in stepfamilies. Although marriage increases the economic resources in the household, research consistently shows that children fare no better in stepfamilies than in single-parent families in terms of psychological and behavioral adjustment.79 Tension between stepfathers and stepchildren is not uncommon, and family discord can offset the potential benefits of a higher standard of living. These research findings suggest that the needs of stepfamilies may differ sufficiently from those of natural parent couples to warrant specially designed programs.

Some observers have expressed concern that public policies supporting marriage may inadvertently lead some women to become trapped in abusive relationships. Although the concern is valid, research indicates that most instances of relationship aggression involve “situational couple violence.”80 Situational violence reflects everyday arguments that escalate out of control, rather than the intent of one partner (usually the male) to dominate and control the other. Such violence usually does not result in serious injury (although it can) and is as likely to be initiated by wives as by husbands. Consequently, couples who have experienced a few episodes of aggression, especially when it is not severe, should not necessarily be screened out of marriage education programs. Nevertheless, the risk of serious violence remains a possibility for some mothers and their children, particularly low-income women.81 For this reason, program administrators must work closely with domestic violence experts to ensure that adequate safeguards are in place for vulnerable mothers and children. Indeed, all federal government programs are required to take this step and to develop domestic violence protocols to protect mothers and children at risk of domestic violence.82

The risk of domestic violence can be reduced by helping single young women (and men) make healthy choices about relationships. Within My Reach, a program being deployed in numerous settings, including classes for welfare recipients, in Oklahoma, is an example of an initiative for individuals (rather than couples).83 It includes strong messages about feeling safe in relationships, as well as strategies for exiting or avoiding potentially dangerous relationships or marriages. The curriculum places explicit emphasis on the value of moving slowly and deliberately toward major relationship transitions, such as having a child, cohabiting, or marriage.

Finally, some observers may argue that the money spent on these programs would be better spent by being transferred directly to single parents with children. As noted, however, the costs per person are not large. Diverting these funds directly to single parents and their children would have only a minimal and short-term effect on a single-parent family’s standard of living. The opportunity cost is the potential for long-term gains through more and stronger two-parent families.