Government dowry

October 27, 2005

In an effort to encourage unwed Washington couples with children to marry, U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback has proposed a questionable federal program that would match married couples' savings by a 3-1 ratio in order to help them buy a house, start a business or get post-secondary education or job training.

The Kansas Republican's proposal targets Washington because it leads the nation in the rate of out-of-wedlock births. Nonetheless, the idea is too simplistic and fails to address complex social and economic factors that reduce marriage rates among mostly low-income black couples. Those factors include the decline of good-paying manufacturing jobs, falling wages, high unemployment among black men and broader social acceptance of having children outside marriage.

Mr. Brownback assumes these couples would marry if they could afford to and would remain so if given financial incentives. The matching funds can be as much as $9,000. He thinks that unwed mothers on welfare fear having their public assistance benefits reduced if their income goes up as the result of marriage.

However, the 1996 welfare reform law eliminated some eligibility rules that discouraged marriage. Tax policies such as the child tax credit and the Earned Income Tax Credit, designed for low-wage earners, also removed some financial disincentives to marry. Similar federally funded programs known as Individual Development Accounts, not tied to marriage, already exist.

Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the D.C. delegate to the House of Representatives, argues that Mr. Brownback's plan is much needed but that it cannot guarantee successful marriages or healthy families. The extra money might lessen financial stresses on couples, help them save and get their finances in order, but no federal program can foster the complicated mix of effort, commitment, suitability, compromise and affection that makes for good marriages.

Mr. Brownback says his Marriage Development Accounts, targeted at couples earning less than $50,000, would alleviate generational poverty and improve children's lives. He correctly points to studies showing that children raised by married parents are less likely to drop out of school, end up in jail or become teen parents. The rate of children in one-parent homes is cause for concern and does demand efforts to slow this trend. Paying off couples who get hitched is not the way to do it.

Some poor couples aren't married for good reasons: because of domestic violence; because the women got pregnant as teenagers before they could establish committed and mature relationships with the men; because the couples are simply incompatible or not in love.

The Senate approved Mr. Brownback's proposal last week as part of a larger spending measure. The House should reject this attempt at government-subsidized matrimony.

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