On Psychology

Jewish World Review Oct. 26, 2000 / 27 Tishrei, 5761

Doing Something to
Boost Marriages

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE U.S. CENSUS BUREAU recently released a report titled, "Child Support for Custodial Mothers and Fathers." The report contains discouraging news disguised as encouraging news. First, the encouraging news.

The proportion of custodial parents employed in full-time, year-round jobs increased from 46 percent in 1993 to 51 percent in 1997, including 47 percent of custodial mothers and 77 percent of custodial fathers. Add in custodial parents who worked part-time, and nearly eight in 10 custodial mothers and nine in 10 custodial fathers were employed in 1997.

As a result, the percentage of custodial parents living in poverty declined. In 1997, 29 percent of custodial parents lived in poverty, down from 33 percent in 1993. Moreover, the proportion of custodial parents participating in at least one public assistance program (Medicaid, food stamps, public housing or rent subsidy, cash welfare or general assistance) also declined, from 41 percent in 1993 to 34 percent in 1993. Clearly, welfare reform's emphasis on work is having its intended effect.

The other encouraging news in this report is that more custodial parents are receiving the child support they are owed. Of the 7 million custodial parents due child support payments in 1997, 67 percent received either part or full payment -- a much greater percentage than the oft quoted figure of about 20 percent. Moreover, the proportion of custodial parents who received the full amount of child support due increased from 34 percent in 1993 to 41 percent in 1997. Apparently, policies aimed at getting tough on "deadbeat" noncustodial parents are having their intended effect as well.

So, you ask, where's the discouraging news?

Here it is: According to the Census Bureau report, the total number of children under the age of 21 living in households where a biological parent is absent continues to grow. In 1993, there were 13.7 million custodial parents. By 1997, that number had grown to 14 million. The increase in the number of custodial parents translates into 23 million children under 21 years of age currently having one of their biological parents living elsewhere.

What this report really tells us is this: When it comes to public policy, what you pay for is what you get. When you spend money helping custodial parents get jobs and enforcing child support obligations, more custodial parents get jobs and receive child support.

The opposite, however, is also true. When public policy does nothing, nothing happens. That has been the case when it comes to marriage. Public policy has done nothing to either encourage marriage or increase marital stability. As a result, the number of children growing up in intact, two-parent married households continues to decline.

Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting the government stop encouraging custodial parents to become and stay employed. Nor am I suggesting we abandon efforts to ensure that non-custodial parents pay child support. I am, in fact, a strong supporter of both welfare-to-work policies and child support enforcement. When can't just ignore children who are growing up in single- parent households.

Nevertheless, there is a problem with the current emphasis on helping custodial parents get jobs and enforcing child support orders and it is this: The more successful we are in accomplishing these things, the more we delude ourselves into thinking we have solved the problem.

The problem, however, is not just that too few custodial parents are employed and too few non-custodial parents pay child support, but that too many children live in homes absent one of their biological parents in the first place.

Neither welfare-to-work nor child support enforcement, while important, does anything to reduce the number of children growing up in broken homes. To do that, we also must focus on encouraging marriage.

But, you say, we don't know how to encourage marriage; at least we know something about encouraging work and enforcing child support orders.

I agree. Our knowledge of how to encourage marriage is pretty thin. One thing we know for certain, however, is that if you don't do anything to encourage marriage, you don't get any increase in marriage. Since doing nothing isn't working, maybe its time to try something.

We could, for example, get rid of the marriage penalties inherent in both the U.S. tax code and the Earned Income Tax Credit. We also could fund low- or no-cost premarital education services for low-income couples contemplating marriage. A public awareness campaign extolling the virtues of marriage also might help.

But, you argue, there is no evidence that any of this will work. Quite true. We'll never really know, however, unless we try. As the Census Bureau report attests, doing nothing has not succeeded in reducing the number of children born out-of-wedlock or living in broken homes. Perhaps doing something will. bet.

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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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn