As part of its welfare reform campaign, the Bush administration wants to spend $100 million annually to promote marriage among the poor, who account for the largest percentage of out-of-wedlock births and what we used to call "broken homes."
Numerous studies over the last 25 years have produced irrefutable statistics about divorce, its effects on women and children, as well as society. People who marry, stay married and have children within marriage are less likely to live in poverty, are more likely to provide their children a better education, income and social status, and are apt to live longer, especially if they are men.
Since 1969, when "no-fault" divorce gained acceptance as a supposed method of improving relationships between couples determined to split and their children, divorces have multiplied, along with their personal and social consequences. Statistics can be boring, but here are a few that should be sobering:
Single mothers are nine times more likely to live in deep poverty than the married family, with incomes well below the official poverty line (American Sociological Review 56, December 1991); In Utah, a strong "pro-family" state because of its Mormon population, divorce and its financial stresses affect 75 to 80 percent of the people on welfare rolls (Christian Science Monitor, 9/21/98); Single women are five times more likely to be poor than married women (Bureau of the Census, Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1992).
There are some things government can do to undergird, instead of undermine marriage. These include educational campaigns and premarital counseling, which the Bush administration plans to do, as well as tax breaks for stay-at-home mothers. But the primary enemy of marriage is contemporary culture. Government is incapable of changing that.
More than two-thirds of African-American children are born out of wedlock and the number for whites is 25 percent. No culture can remain healthy with statistics like these. The primary reason for the explosion of easy divorce and "illegitimate children" is the loss of stigma.
As former Clinton adviser William Galston has noted, you need only do three things in this country to avoid poverty: finish high school, marry before having a child, and marry after the age of 20. Among those who follow such advice, only 8 percent are poor, while 79 percent of those who do not are poor.
UCLA Sociology Professor James Q. Wilson quotes Galston in the Winter 2002 issue of City Journal magazine. Wilson traces the history of welfare and other government subsidies of self-destructive behavior and finds a correlation between these subsidies and negative outcomes.
Wilson says the cultural subversion of marriage has worked this way: "(W)hereas marriage was once thought to be about a social union, it is now about personal preferences. Formerly, law and opinion enforced the desirability of marriage without asking what went on in that union; today, law and opinion enforce the desirability of personal happiness without worrying much about maintaining a formal relationship. Marriage was once a sacrament, then it became a contract, and now it is an arrangement...".
"Sex and the City," not "Ozzie and Harriet" is our model today. The sex act, not the marital bond, is supreme. As Wilson notes, young men today "act as if sex is more important than marriage," and they "worry more about scoring than dating...To them, marriage is at best a long-term benefit, while sex is an immediate preoccupation."
Government, alone, or even government mainly, cannot transform culture. That requires millions of individual decisions. The churches and other religious organizations are the best hope for rebuilding families, but statistics show as many churchgoers are divorcing as secularists. Perhaps the first effort ought to be in repairing the model. That way the government wouldn't have to spend as much.