If I were running for governor of Maryland, here's a speech I would give this weekend, injecting a fresh idea into the campaign:
"I will propose a new law to encourage cohabiting couples to marry. Most out-of-wedlock births are to couples who are committed enough to each other to live together. However, most cohabitations end within 18 months.
"The Census Bureau recently reported that 7.5 million couples are living together. This is a seventeen-fold increase from the 430,000 who were doing so in 1960. Yet only 1.4 million of those couples will marry. Four of five cohabiting couples break up before there is a wedding.
"In addition, according to a Penn State study, couples who marry after living together are 61 percent more likely to divorce than couples who remained apart until the wedding.
"Half of cohabiting couples said they were 'testing' the relationship or were in a 'trial marriage.' However, that's a myth. Cohabitation is more like a trial divorce, in which nine out of 10 relationships fail. They will either break up in a premarital divorce or in a real one."
You may be wondering: With all the problems facing our state, why should a candidate for governor of Maryland talk about marriage, divorce and cohabitation? The answer is simple: Divorce and unwed births are two of the engines driving up the costs of government.
On average, each divorce involves one child. The unwed or divorced mother of a child is eligible for welfare, Medicaid, housing and day care subsidies, Food Stamps, etc. According to the Heritage Foundation, the nation's 13 million single parents with children cost taxpayers $20,000 each, or $260 billion in 2004. That is probably $300 billion today.
What does this mean for Maryland? Of the state's 78,100 births in 2007, 41 percent were to unwed mothers. Those 32,000 babies have the worst possible future prospects. If the baby's father is living with the mother, the odds are 80 percent that he will leave her and the child. But what if the couple marries? More than half will divorce, and that child will likely be abandoned by one parent. Maryland had 15,200 divorces last year.
Therefore, using the Heritage Foundation's cost estimates, taxpayers face a cost of about $640 million a year for one year of out-of-wedlock births and $304 million more per year for the state's divorces — or about $1 billion for each added year. These huge costs are 61 percent federal and 39 percent state.
The costs go far beyond these numbers. According to a Heritage study, children from fatherless homes are:
•five times more likely to commit suicide
•seven times more apt to become teenage mothers or to drop out of school
•15 times more apt to end up in prison as a teenager
•33 times more likely to be seriously abused, requiring medical attention
•73 times more likely to be killed
So it's clearly in the state's interest to promote marriage and deter cohabitation and divorce. But what to do? If I were a candidate, here's what I'd say:
"If elected governor, I will make it my priority to reduce this wreckage. Here are some ideas:
"I will create a Maryland Marriage Commission. It will include key church and government officials, plus leaders in the marriage movement.
"I will require state welfare offices to provide information on the value of marriage in reducing poverty and increasing wealth, happiness and longer lives. (For example, married men live 10 years longer than single men, and women live four years longer.) Publicly funded birth control clinics will provide information on the benefits of marriage. Public schools can be encouraged make a case for not having children until marriage.
"I will reduce marriage penalties. Currently, if cohabiting couples marry, they lose welfare, Medicaid, Food Stamps, housing subsidies, etc. I propose to extend state benefits for a year if they marry and agree to take courses to improve their communication and conflict-resolution skills. That will encourage many to marry, which is what is best for them and their children. After that year, I will taper off subsidies by 25 percent per year. Since married men earn more than single men, most would not need subsidies long term.
"In time, government costs would drop by huge amounts, perhaps half of the current outlays, saving hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. Maryland can be the first state to reduce cohabitation and raise the marriage rate to give our children and their parents a brighter future."
Michael J. McManus is president and co-chair of Potomac-based Marriage Savers (www.marriagesavers.org). His e-mail is email@example.com.