On Psychology

Jewish World Review June 24, 1999 /10 Tamuz, 5759

Dr. Wade Horn

IRS, Welfare Discourages Low-Income Marriages

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

IN MANY INNER CITY COMMUNITIES, it seems, it's easier to find a vegetable garden than a responsible and involved father. Indeed, entire communities can rightly be termed fatherless.

Conventional wisdom provides a simple reason: men impregnating women, many of them young women, with little concern for the consequences. But new research recently presented at the 1999 National Summit on Urban Fathers in Washington, D.C., suggests a more complicated picture.

According to noted social scientist Sara McLanahan, at the time of the birth of a child to a low-income, unwed mother, 82% of the parents are romantically involved with each other. Fifty-three percent are cohabiting at the time of the birth.

Moreover, 86% of these fathers have their name on the birth certificate of the children. Seventy-eight percent helped the mother during pregnancy, and 86% have plan to continue helping in the future. Thus, contrary to conventional wisdom, the vast majority of these fathers are romantically involved with the mother of their child and, upon learning their partner is pregnant, very much want to and plan to be a good father.

Econophone But most startling of all is this: When asked what the chances are that they will get married someday, 52% say "almost certain" or "a good chance." An additional 15% say "50/50." Hence, nearly two-thirds of these couples see marriage as not only desirable, but a likely outcome. Yet, we know that far fewer of these couples ever go on to get married. Why not?

One reason may be that we are afraid to bring up the topic. How many pro-marriage posters have you ever seen hanging on the wall of a welfare office? Or brochures describing the benefits of marriage prominently displayed in the waiting room of an inner city maternity hospital? How many urban schools teach the skills necessary to sustain a healthy and mutually satisfying marital relationship? The answer, of course, is very few.

The consequence of our reticence to talk about marriage, especially in low-income communities, is that young couples aren't encouraged to move towards marriage. Little wonder so few of them do.

But it gets even worse. Should these young couples decide to get married, Uncle Sam punishes them. While the marriage penalty in the tax code for two-earner couples is reasonably well-known, what is less commonly understood is the fact that low-income couples face the most severe financial marriage penalties of all.

The biggest culprit is the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). A wage supplement designed to encourage work, the EITC contains a horrific financial penalty for marriage.

That's because the EITC is not adjusted for the number of adults in a household. Thus, in cases where both the mom and the dad are working, the EITC penalizes a typical low-income couple about $1800 should they choose to get married.

But that's not all. Low-income couples who choose to get married also frequently stand to lose housing benefits, access to job placement and supportive employment services, even a slot in Head Start for their child. In fact, according to calculations by Eugene Steurele of the Urban Institute, should a single mother on welfare choose to marry a man working full-time at a minimum wage job and, in doing so, give her children a real live in-the-home dad instead of a child support check, the new family's combined earnings plus benefits would be $3,862 less than if the couple did not marry and the woman stayed on welfare. And we wonder why marriage is disappearing in low-income communities.

All of this wouldn't matter if marriage didn't matter. But it does. And not just a little. It matters a lot.

Children fare much better when raised in a married, intact, two-parent household. In addition, research indicates that both married men and married women are happier, healthier, and wealthier than their unmarried counterparts. Furthermore, the best indicator of the violent crime rate in a community is not race, ethnicity or even income, but the prevalence of marriage.

And marriage is the glue that binds fathers to their children. Not a perfect glue, but a better glue than either cohabitation or child support enforcement. The simple fact is this: If we want children to grow up with loving, involved, committed fathers, we will have to figure out a way to resurrect marriage in our urban areas.

But, many shrug, its too late to do anything about all of this. The genie is out of the bottle. We just have to face the fact that fathers and marriage have largely disappeared from many urban areas and get on with adjusting to this "reality."

Not so fast. Here are some ideas discussed at the National Summit on Urban Fathers that Mayors can do to help restore fatherhood and marriage in our urban areas:

o convene a city-wide summit on fatherhood, bringing together top leaders from the civic, business, religious, educational and social service sectors of the city, to publicly communicate the high personal priority he or she has placed on reversing father absence;

o initiate a city-wide public education campaign to raise awareness of the importance of fathers and to help inspire men to be more involved fathers;

o establish a Fatherhood Resource Center where fathers ■- new and experienced ■- can go for help, advice, or needed services;

o conduct a city-wide program audit to determine what message the city■s human service delivery system is communicating about the importance of fathers and marriage; and

o use a portion of discretionary funds to provide seed grants to small but effective community-based support, outreach and skill building fatherhood programs.

Fatherlessness is connected to our most pressing social ills, especially in urban areas, including poverty, crime, educational failure, and substance abuse. And marriage is the most effective pathway to an involved father. Mayors -- and other elected officials -- cannot be expected to solve all our problems, but what they can start by asserting that fathers matter -- and so does marriage.

Our nation desperately needs more of both.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn