Will welfare reform strengthen families?

August 04, 1996|By Sara Engram

THE NATION SAID goodbye to welfare as we knew it last week.

But there is no guarantee the sweeping changes passed by Congress and agreed to by President Clinton will end the poverty of resources and spirit that exemplifies the current system. Despite the lack of guarantees, majority opinion in this country reached a consensus that a leap into the unknown is preferable to the status quo.

If the reforms do in fact produce improvements, surely one place they will show up is in the well-being of children. And one way to judge that is the extent to which the new approach to welfare encourages the formation of stable, two-parent families.

The most powerful argument of opponents of welfare reform was their prediction that the legislation would push more children into poverty. But child well-being has already been declining to alarming levels, and not just among the poor. A key reason has been the increase in single-parent households, resulting from rising rates of divorce and out-of-wedlock births.

The benefits of marriage

Yes, there are single parents who successfully raise their children despite the odds, and there are married couples who fail their children miserably. But on the whole, children in two-parent families have a huge advantage, not just economically but also in gaining a more stable sense of identity, grounding and discipline.

Work organizes life, as President Clinton points out, but so does a marriage. As researchers are learning, the stability provided by the legal commitment of marriage offers benefits not just to the spouses, but especially to their children. Whether judged by income and net worth or health and longevity, married couples have an edge.

If one reason for welfare reform is to address the material and moral poverty associated with the status quo, a chief goal of reform should be to reverse the old system's perverse discouragement of marriage and to instill more poor families with the stability marriage can provide.

For years, families with able-bodied men in the household were ineligible for benefits. That approach not only robbed poor men of a meaningful role in their communities, it also irreparably harmed generations of poor children.

The signs that welfare reform will increase family stability are not promising. After all, it's hard to make poor people live up to ideals the rest of society seems to be abandoning.

These are dark days for the institution of marriage. By some estimates, up to 65 percent of all new marriages will fail.

Marriage and divorce statistics have begun to raise alarm among researchers and social commentators. And certainly the high rates of teen-age pregnancies have gotten the attention of welfare reformers.

Twin curses

So far, however, there has been too little attention paid to the connection between the forces buffeting marriage in the larger society and the social problems associated with dysfunctional welfare families.

The effects of poverty on children are widely recognized. But the rising rates of delinquency, juvenile crime (including homicide), suicide, depression and drug and alcohol abuse among American youth cannot all be chalked up to poverty.

A 1990 commission sponsored by the National Association of State Boards of Education declared that "never before has one generation of American teen-agers been less healthy, less cared for, or less prepared for life than their parents were at the same age."

In March 1995, a group of scholars and analysts calling themselves the Council on Families in America produced a report titled "Marriage in America." In it, they offered a blunt message:

"To reverse the current deterioration of child and societal well-being in the United States, we must strengthen the institution of marriage. We realize that strengthening marriage cannot be our only goal. But we insist that it must become our most important goal. For unless we reverse the decline of marriage, no other achievements -- no tax cut, no new government program, no new idea -- will be powerful enough to reverse the trend of declining child well-being."

Add welfare reform to that list ofpotentially futile achievements.

Last week the country changed the rules for poor people. But that will not be enough to produce more stable, self-sufficient families.

To reach that goal, the rest of us will have to be willing to change as well.

Sara Engram is deputy editorial page editor for The Sun.

Pub Date: 8/04/96

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