President Bush’s welfare reform initiative is trying to put an end to one of the greatest social tragedies of the past 30 years: the collapse of marriage. As a result of the soaring rates of divorce and illegitimacy, the percentage of children growing up without a father nearly tripled between 1960 and the early 1990s. This has grave economic repercussions. Eighty percent of all poverty in the United States is linked to the breakdown of the family.
Unfortunately, the old welfare regime compounded this problem by penalizing marriage. Single mothers received greater benefits if they remained single than if they married a working husband. The father’s earnings were used against the mother’s welfare eligibility. This caused the couple’s welfare benefits to be reduced dramatically, thus decreasing the couple’s combined income. The single mother was forced to choose either the child’s emotional well-being (having a father in the home) or financial security.
President Bush’s plan builds on the historic 1996 Welfare Reform Act. The initiative seeks to promote marriage and strengthen family relationships among low-income Americans. He proposes to devote up to $300 million to this effort. The plan will take away the restrictions that discourage poor women from marrying the fathers of their children. It will also help poor parents develop healthy and long-lasting marriages. Premarital counseling and responsible-fatherhood programs are among the ideas proposed by the president to achieve this end. For every marriage that succeeds, a child is more likely to avoid welfare dependence.
However, many feminists believe that Bush’s plan encourages women to marry for the wrong reasons—or worse, encourages them to remain enslaved in unhappy marriages. Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), argues that it’s an outrage to say that the path to economic stability for poor women is marriage. This protest is surprising since statistics have shown that marriage provides women with more than just financial security; it also decreases domestic violence. Research indicates that women who cohabitate with their boyfriends are twice as likely to experience domestic violence than married women.
Yet, not all feminists are opposed to the proposal. Tammy Bruce, former president of NOW’s Los Angeles chapter, approves of Bush’s plan. She believes it empowers poor women by giving them more options: The more choices poor women have, the better their decisions will be. She even argues that one of the biggest failures of the modern feminist movement is its failure to include men, who can and should be partners in women’s independence and progress.
The critics of Bush’s plan fail to see the social repercussions of absentee fathers. The breakdown of the American family is a greater social problem than the national debt or Social Security—precisely because of its effects on children. According to The Positive Effects of Marriage: A Book of Charts by Patrick Fagan, Robert Rector, Kirk Johnson, and America Peterson (The Heritage Foundation, 2002), children who grow up in never-formed or broken families are more likely to be abused physically, drop out of school, experiment with drugs, and engage in violent behavior. Children from single-parent homes are five times more likely to be poor, three times more likely to fail at school, and two times more likely to experience emotional or behavioral problems requiring psychiatric treatment. The welfare of children should be society’s main concern. As President Bush stated: “Strong marriages and stable families are incredibly good for children, and stable families should be the central goal of American welfare policy.”
Despite its critics, welfare reform is strongly supported by both Republicans and Democrats. This marks a change from the 1960s, when the Democratic Party was largely hostile to personal responsibility and self-help in the welfare program. The president’s initiative has attracted such broad-based approval because there’s a widespread realization—among both conservatives and liberals—that promoting marriage and family stability is essential to overcoming poverty and ending the degrading cycle of welfare dependency.
The Bush administration is on the right track in encouraging two-parent families that foster a nurturing, loving environment for children. The feminist movement was founded on Gloria Steinem’s infamous remark that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Dan Quayle may have been mocked by the media in 1992 when he spoke out against Murphy Brown and the dangers of single motherhood, but in the end, the fish got his bicycle when Gloria Steinem got married over a year ago. Maybe Dan Quayle was right after all.