WITH A Sept. 30 reauthorization deadline approaching on a 1996 welfare law, debate on the federal government's role in marriage and the family has never been so controversial.
Much of the current discussion focuses on helping low-income people create and maintain healthy two-parent families. But confining pro-marriage legislation to low-income families ignores a fundamental belief about marriage in this country: All families, regardless of socioeconomic status, hold the institution in very high regard despite the stresses of everyday living.
Indeed, the numbers make the chances of successful marriage appear bleak. Overall marriage rates have declined steadily since the mid-1980s. The average age at which people marry has increased over the last several decades, underscoring the fact that four people in 10 will not be married at the start of their thirties. Divorce rates have declined throughout the 1990s, but half of marriages still end in divorce. About one-fifth of all marriages dissolve within five years, whether or not both individuals are working.
Concerned that marriage was a fading institution, Congress in 1996 passed a welfare reform law in which three of its four purposes dealt explicitly with reducing out-of-wedlock births and promoting two-parent families. This law, which has re-invigorated a longstanding debate about the federal government's role in the family, reflects alarm over the growth of single-parent families and illegitimacy and their association with welfare dependency.
The law is historic because it is the first federal legislation to fund and enforce programs that strengthen marriage. For example, it awards money to states that reduce the percentage of out-of-wedlock births and allocates additional funding to states that pursue marriage counseling programs among their low-income populations.
As Congress debates the reauthorization of this welfare reform law, thereby taking the next step in promulgating a pro-marriage agenda among low-income groups, it should give serious consideration to broadening the discussion to include all marriages, regardless of income level.
Although there is nothing in the current law that compels states to focus exclusively on welfare recipients, it sends the clear message that family formation is a problem endemic only to low-income individuals. This is statistically untrue. If most Americans still believe healthy marriages are important, and the federal government is going to reflect that principle through public policy, it should do so in a way that communicates the institution's importance to everyone.
What should the government do?
If one accepts that government should be involved in actively promoting marriage, it should convey a sense of support and hope to all wives and husbands, mothers and fathers. For example, ridding the tax code of nearly 60 provisions that give preferential treatment to individuals rather than married couples would be a good start.
If Washington commits more significant resources to encourage marriage, it likely will be resisted by those wary of government intrusion in private matters. But anyone who ponders the implications of the 1996 welfare law knows that the federal government already is involved in strengthening marriage.
The debate, therefore, concerns the extent to which it should be involved, with whom it should be involved and the method for achieving its goals. What we need is a marriage policy that reflects Americans' desire for healthy, lasting relationships.
Chris M. Herbst is a research analyst for the Family Welfare Research and Training Group at the University of Maryland School of Social Work in Baltimore.