Commentary

Obstacles Bar Way To Marriage


By Maureen Waller, research fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Oakland Tribune on February 28, 2002

President Bush's new budget asks Congress to set aside $100 million of welfare funds for experimental programs aimed at strengthening marriage and families. Some states have already taken steps to encourage women on welfare to marry by providing public education and outreach on the virtues of marriage, advocating premarital counseling and even adding $100 to parents' welfare benefits if they tie the knot. These programs are consistent with the goals of 1996 welfare reform legislation and represent a significant policy shift from the former welfare system that, according to many critics, actually discouraged marriage and coupledom.

Although the administration's idea of exploring strategies to help unmarried parents strengthen their family relationships is a good one, success may elude state programs if, in their zeal to promote pro-marriage values, they fail to understand and address the factors that make these relationships fragile in the first place. As part of a multiyear effort to understand the circumstances of fragile families, we conducted extensive research among unmarried mothers and fathers in Oakland. Far from the single-parent, absent-father scenario often assumed, we found that about half of unmarried parents in Oakland were living together at the time of their child's birth.

These couples had relatively stable relationships in the first year, expressed favorable attitudes toward marriage, and had high expectations that they would marry. However, by the end of their child's first year, only 10 percent had done so.

What keeps new parents from taking the plunge or even staying together? The reasons include unemployment among fathers, housing instability, conflict and distrust in their relationships, drug and alcohol problems and physical violence.

Many of their relationship problems were also exacerbated by poverty. Parents cited fathers' having a steady job as one of the most important determinants of a successful marriage. But about 30 percent of the fathers were not working one year after their child's birth. The average earnings of those who did work were less than $16,000 per year.

These findings suggest that programs aimed at keeping families intact must first help parents overcome the economic, social and personal barriers that cause them to end their relationships or delay marriage. These programs need to target new or soon-to-be parents who are likely to be in committed relationships. They should also treat unmarried parents and their children as families rather than assuming the father is out of the picture.

Supporting unmarried parents early in their child's life would also keep fathers economically and emotionally involved with their children -- involvement that often dwindles when parents end their romantic relationships. Programs should not discourage unmarried parents from living together or fathers from being involved with their children, except where there is harmful behavior such as domestic violence. Locally, the Alameda County child support office has made efforts to connect fathers to employment and other services through community-based programs. These are novel programs: At present, few work-related services are available to fathers. Such services are important not only for helping unmarried fathers meet their financial obligations to their children, they also have an important potential side effect -- reducing stress on a couple's relationship.

Despite their good intentions, programs aimed at promoting marriage -- in and of itself -- may not be enough to create stable two-parent families in Oakland and other communities. Instead, policies must help new families -- traditional or not -- relieve the social and economic pressures that pull so many apart.

Publications

Unmarried Parents, Fragile Families: New Evidence from Oakland

Fragile Families One Year Later: Oakland, California