NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

The Role of Marriage in Welfare Reform

February 24, 2003

The erosion of marriage has created enormous difficulties for children, parents and society. Means-tested aid programs such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), food stamps and public housing encourage single parenthood by implicitly penalizing low-income mothers who marry employed men.

In response, President Bush would like to earmark $300 million per year (or two percent of the annual budget for TANF) to create a new program specifically dedicated to reducing child poverty and increasing child well-being by fostering healthy marriage.

  • These programs would teach relationship skills to unmarried couples at the time of pregnancy with the goal of helping couples develop strong, healthy marriages.
  • The programs would also provide marriage-skills training to low-income married couples to help those couples improve their relationships and avoid marital breakup.

The precedent for the success of the president's program is overwhelming:

  • One 1985 analysis of studies involving nearly 4,000 couples enrolled in marriage-enrichment programs found that the average couple, after participating in a program, was better off than more than two-thirds of couples who did not participate.
  • A 1993 analysis found that couples who took marriage counseling were better off than 70 percent of couple that did not take counseling.
  • An extensive review of the literature on the effectiveness of marital counseling in preventing separation and divorce found dozens of studies demonstrating that counseling was effective in reducing conflict and increasing marital satisfaction.

These studies make the case that marriages are not merely enabled to survive, but can also thrive when couples learn the skills to make their relationships work. Moreover, the research shows that the programs are effective in a variety of socioeconomic classes.

Source: Patrick F. Fagan, Robert W. Patterson, and Robert E. Rector, "Marriage and Welfare Reform: The Overwhelming Evidence that Marriage Education Works," Backgrounder No. 1606, October 2002, Heritage Foundation.


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