Marriage promotion plan must take social science research into account

November 17, 2003

WASHINGTON, DC--The Bush Administration's proposal to set aside federal welfare funds for marriage promotion programs has more to do with symbolism and is not likely to be effective at promoting model families and reducing poverty, according to Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociology professor.

The debate over the $300 million in state funds for marriage promotion programs involves two sides: those who want to strengthen marriage and those who argue that single-parent families can be just as beneficial for children as long as these latter families receive adequate support. The marriage program includes training in marriage and relationship skills, conflict resolution programs, public advertising campaigns, education in high school on the value of marriage, and other activities. Many of these programs, such as teaching relationship skills, are based on programs developed for middle-income families; whether they can be adapted effectively to the poor has yet to be determined.

"Their debates have two levels, the statistical and the political," said Cherlin. His research on the viability of the marriage program appears in the fall 2003 issue of Contexts magazine, published by the American Sociological Association (ASA). He says the statistical debate concerns whether the findings of social science research show marriage to be beneficial while the political dispute reflects basic disagreement about whether the government should favor one model of family life above all others.

In 1950, four percent of children were born to unwed women, and 50 years later it has increased to 33 percent. As a result of more parents having children outside of marriage and divorce becoming more common, about half of all children are projected to spend some time in a single-parent family. While these statistics cut across race, ethnicity, and class, poor children and black children are most likely to be raised in a single-parent home.

Sociologists have found that as much as half of the disadvantage of growing up in single-parent homes is due to lower income. Cherlin's research found that people whose parents had been divorced had poorer mental health, but some portion of their difficulties could be accounted for by behavior problems and psychological distress that were visible earlier in their lives.

"Taken together, all of these findings suggest that while the number of parents matters, it matters less than most people think; and it matters less than many other factors for how children fare," said Cherlin.

On the political side, recent surveys have shown that views on marriage are changing. The dominant view is no longer that the man should be the achiever outside the home and the woman primarily should take care of the home. Alternative paths to parenthood, other than marriage, are becoming more feasible. The moral views of marriage are still mixed.

"Marriage, it would seem, is valued as long as it is consistent with the expressive individualism that Americans hold most dear," Cherlin finds. "That is why pro-marriage policies that seem to interfere with individual decisions and self-expression are not broadly popular."

Cherlin's research found that even when single mothers do marry, it is very often not to fathers of their children. Research literature shows that children in stepparent families fare no better than children in single-parent families. While the addition of a stepfather usually brings in an increase in income, it also complicates the family situation.

"The problem is that it is hard to support healthy marriages without concurrently supporting unhealthy marriages," concluded Cherlin.
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The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a non-profit membership association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, advancing sociology as a science and profession, and promoting the contributions and use of sociology to society.

American Sociological Association

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