Spotlight Exclusives

The Presidential Election and Marriage: Where۪s the Debate?

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It is now commonplace to observe that in the last half century, the American family has undergone fundamental changes. Marriage rates fell and age of first marriage increased; divorce rates increased until the 1990s and stabilized at a little under 50 percent; nonmarital birth rates exploded so that we۪re probably not far from the day when four of ten babies will be born outside marriage; and cohabitation increased dramatically and appears to be continuing its rise.1 The upshot is that nearly 30 percent of the nation۪s children live in a female-headed family at any given moment and around half of children will spend some portion of their childhood in a single-parent family. These trends have caused public concern because children living in single-parent families are four or five times as likely to be poor as children living with their married parents.2 Moreover, there is strong evidence that children reared by single parents have worse outcomes on a host of developmental measures including reduced school performance and higher rates of social and emotional problems.3 Thus, the decline of the married-parent family exacts a fearsome toll on the nation۪s future and on current and future taxpayers. Given the significance of marriage to the well-being of parents, children, and the nation, it is surprising how silent the current presidential candidates are on the subject, especially since recent policy initiatives have given them something to build on.

Congress has already made marriage promotion a goal of federal policy. A central feature of the welfare reform law of 1996 was the repeal of Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which provided cash assistance to destitute parents (mostly single mothers), and its replacement by a new cash welfare program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Although the TANF program is widely known for its work requirements and success in contributing to a large decline in welfare use accompanied by an unprecedented increase in work by poor mothers, the 1996 law emphasized marriage even more than work. The text of the legislation states that the TANF program has four goals. Promoting work is one of the goals, but the issue of family composition is a focus of three of the goals; namely, the “promotion of marriage,” the “prevention” and “reduction” of nonmarital births, and the “encouragement” and “maintenance” of two-parent families.

Similarly, President Bush made marriage a major focus of social policy in his administration. Two actions are especially notable. The first, and one that has drawn support from all sides of the marriage debate, including critics of the administration۪s goal of using the federal government to encourage marriage,4 is to launch high-quality demonstration programs designed to produce evidence on whether marriage education coupled with services especially job services can build and strengthen marriage and improve children۪s development.5 Some of the programs are designed for young unmarried couples who have had a baby together, some for young couples who are already married, and some to promote community-wide initiatives such as use of the media to drive home the message that marriage is good for children, adults, and communities and the use of churches and other non-profit organizations to promote and strengthen marriage.

The second Bush marriage initiative, enacted as part of the 2006 reauthorization of welfare reform, provides $100 million a year for 5 years to support about 125 programs throughout the nation that aim to support healthy marriage. Most of the programs are sponsored by community-based organizations such as churches and other groups concerned about the institution of marriage and about services for the poor. Someone with political sensibilities might notice that these programs could have the effect of creating a network of local organizations and individuals who are advocates for the program and who could play a role when the question of reauthorizing the $100 million program comes up in 2009 and 2010.

Concern with supporting marriage and with trying to increase the number of children reared by their married parents is vital to the future of the nation. Since the mid-1990s, the federal government has embarked on the most ambitious agenda ever to create a marriage movement in America. Several states and local governments have likewise accepted the challenge and created new programs to support marriage.6 And yet the presidential candidates hardly mention marriage or any other problem of family composition. The candidates talk frequently about reducing poverty. They claim that their policies will sustain the economy, ensure employment, boost wages, and maintain government programs to help the poor. But none of the candidates discusses the fact that increasing marriage rates would reduce poverty, improve child development, and increase economic production in the long run. Republican candidates discuss their opposition to gay marriage, but to compare the importance of gay marriage to marriage of biological parents is to compare a lightening bug to lightening. It would be especially important for voters to know whether candidates intend, if elected, to continue the marriage agenda initiated by Congress and President Bush in the last decade or to start their own agenda. If a presidential election is a national seminar on the nation۪s problems and potential solutions, the candidates and the voters are missing an opportunity to have a lively national debate about whether programs to promote marriage should be continued or even expanded.

[1] David Ellwood and Christopher Jencks, “The Spread of Single-Parent Families in the United States Since 1960,” in The Future of the Family, eds. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Lee Rainwater, and Timothy Smeeding, (New York: Russell Sage, 2004), pp. 25-65; Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and Their Driving Forces” (working paper 12944, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, 2007).

[2] Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, “Work and Marriage: The Way to End Poverty and Welfare,” Welfare Reform and Beyond Policy Brief #28, Brookings Institution (September 2003).

[3] Sara McLanahan, Elisabeth Donahue, and Ron Haskins, “Marriage and Child Wellbeing,” Future of Children 15, no.2 (Fall 2005). Few if any researchers doubt that children reared in single-parent families do worse than children reared by continuously married parents, but there is disagreement about whether the differences are attributable specifically to marriage and not to other differences between married and single parents.

[4] Frank F. Furstenberg, “Point/Counterpoint: Should Government Promote Marriage?” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 26, no. 4 (2007): 950-957.

[5] Laura Meckler, “Official Promotes Marriage to Help Poor Kids,” Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2006, p. A1.

[6] For information about a state marriage initiative, see

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