Promoting marriage is a wise investment

April 11, 2006|By RONALD B. MINCY AND HILLARD POUNCY

In recent months, Congress made a five-year, $750 million investment in stronger marriages and better parenting by adding healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood programs to its policy arsenal.

Legislators and policymakers are betting that efforts to aid children can be enhanced if they help both women and men support and care for their children. And in doing so, they have opened a door through which the federal government can address some of the issues facing a disturbingly large and disaffected population: the millions of young men who are out of school, out of work and simply out of luck of earning a better future for themselves and their families.

Compared with the billions of dollars Congress has spent almost exclusively helping women and children through welfare reform, this is a small bet. If it has a fraction of the success enjoyed by the 1996 welfare overhaul, the money will have been well spent.

The lesson of the booming 1990s is that it took the economy, welfare reform and such work incentives as the earned income tax credit to bring about unprecedented reductions in the welfare rolls and child poverty.

Once the economy and policy reinforced each other, labor economists were proved right and the most disadvantaged made the biggest improvements. From the previous peak in 1989, employment rates among less-educated black women were 10 percentage points higher in 2000 and achieved parity with their white counterparts.

Two economists with the Urban Institute, Harry Holzer and Paul Offner, isolated long-term unemployment trends from other factors such as age, education and local unemployment rates and determined what did not happen in the 1990s. The boats of less-educated black men - and men like them - did not rise with the strong economic tide; rather, they were left behind as others sailed on. From 1979 to 2000, employment rates of young, less-educated black men fell by 16 percentage points while those of comparable young black women rose by 1 percentage point. Employment among young, less-educated white men fell by 8 points, while that of comparable women increased by 2 points. Less-educated Hispanic women were the only female group with falling employment rates (by 4 points); rates also fell among Hispanic men. Their decline was only 3 percentage points.

The connection between the men left behind during economic booms and a marriage-minded government policy? In the case of young, less-educated black men, at least, only 13.5 percent were married at the end of the period but 50 percent or more were fathers.

Marriage and fatherhood programs will affect them (and others) in five areas:

Family formation: Cohabiting couples are more likely to dissolve their relationships than married couples. Thus, children born to cohabiting mothers and fathers are still likely to spend much of their childhood in single-mother families, where their chances of being poor are five times those of children in married families. If spending on healthy marriage helps reverse these trends, it will have been a small bet with large payoffs.

Marriage promotion: Some programs will try to teach young marriage-minded people how to choose their partners wisely. Others will teach married couples how to sustain their relationships in tough times. Still others will galvanize communities in support of marriage.

Employment: In the short term, benefits may be most apparent in employment gains for the men left behind in the 1990s. Congress approved spending money for employment services to improve fathers' economic situations in addition to promoting responsible parenting and strengthening relationships.

Child support: In the long term, fatherhood programs address what happens when couples do not make it to the altar but have children anyway. In one study, black and white children were equally likely to have dads served with child support orders, but these orders were less likely to be paid for black children. A glimmer of good news for black children, however, was that those who lived without their fathers were more likely to see them in the past month than were white or Hispanic children and more likely to have received informal cash support.

Responsible fatherhood: These relatively new programs are most deeply entrenched in the black community and are often the only family service organizations reaching out to men and women.

Government help for these agencies is important because they are more likely than other community entities to identify, recruit and support young black couples interested in marriage.

The major lesson of the 1980s and 1990s is that a good economy may not be enough to reverse the fortunes of less-educated males, especially those in the black community. To do that, a good economy requires good policy partners.

For less-educated men awaiting the next economic high tide, marriage and responsible-fatherhood programs are good starts, but we must hope that they are only a beginning.

Ronald B. Mincy is editor of "Black Males Left Behind," and Hillard Pouncy is a contributor.

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