WASHINGTON

Editor's note: This is part two of a three-part series investigating the issues currently surrounding marriage in America.

Two simple words may not only increase family income, but ensure that children have the best shot at happy, healthy lives.

"I do" can really help domestic stability, according to most, if not all, research conducted over the last decade on the effects of marriage.

That research has helped prompt support for the Bush administration's proposal to spend more than $200 million annually over five years — half in the form of matching state grants — to encourage couples to reverse the decades-old decline in marriage.

"Everyone who studies this issue knows that the breakup of the family is the major cause of welfare dependency and child poverty," said Robert Rector, a child and family researcher for the Heritage Foundation.

"We must support the institution of marriage and help parents build stronger families," President Bush said in his October proclamation for Marriage Protection Week 2003.

The Senate is expected to act this session on the $1 billion pro-marriage initiatives as part of its reauthorization of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (search), also known as welfare reform. A similar bill passed the House on a partisan vote in February.

The bill includes funds for marriage education in schools and for adults as well as divorce reduction programs. It also earmarks cash to help states reduce disincentives for marriage in means-tested assistance programs. Currently, welfare payments, food stamps and health benefits for children are largely reduced after a woman legally marries.

The package stems from the Bush administration’s Healthy Marriage Initiative (search), untested at the national level but supported in family research fields as the first public foray into promoting marriage as an institution.

"It is a bold step forward," said Rector, who asked why money should not be spent on strengthening whole families as well as aiding those that are broken. "Either you pick up Humpty-Dumpty after he falls off the wall or try to prevent him from falling in the first place." 

Detractors say government should spend more time and money on helping people get education and employment rather than rushing them into marriage.

"It's a gimmick to make a political statement," said Tom Coleman, lawyer and founder of Unmarried America, a civil rights organization for singles and domestic partners. "This whole idea of pressuring people to marry is going to backfire."

"I don't have any quarrel with the research. The problem I have with the government's approach is it is not treating this as a complex issue," said Ron Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. Walters said much of his problem with the proposal centers on its failure to address other challenges facing men and women in low-income and minority communities.

According to 2000 census data, the rate of married households in the United States declined by nearly 30 percent since 1950. Married couples now make up an estimated 50 percent of households.

Meanwhile, the number of unmarried partners living together has risen from 523,000 in 1970 to approximately 4.9 million in 2000.

Nearly one-third of all children today are born outside of marriage, and more than half of U.S. children will spend all or part of their childhood in a broken family, according to statistics.

The percentage of children living with mothers who have never married increased to 36 percent in 1996 from 7 percent in 1970, said Mary Parke, a researcher at the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Rector added that a child raised by a mother who has never married is seven times more likely to live in poverty than a child raised by his biological parents in an intact marriage.

Many researchers agree that married couples have a better chance not only of staying together, but of providing a stable home for children.

"The hardship is less in the case of married couples," said Robert Lerman, a researcher with the Urban Institute who has studied financial hardships on two nearly identical, low-income families, one married, the other with two cohabitating adults.

"I think there is a body of pretty persuasive evidence that the tendency to marry, itself, provides some enhancement to economic well-being," he said.

But not everyone falls into the neat package of what qualifies for a legally married couple, critics point out. Many homosexuals, for example, are fighting for the right to marry and want to start families, either with biological children from a previous union or adoption. The administration’s initiative does not cover those partnerships.

Mark Shields, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign (search), which promotes the legalization of civil unions for same-sex couples, of which there is an estimated 594,000 in the U.S. today, calls this hypocrisy.

"Our take on it is the rest of the country has a choice — to be married or remain single. For gay people, there is no choice. In the eyes of the law, they are strangers," Shields said.

In addition, marriage rates have plummeted far more among black men and women than whites. The percentage of black women who are married dropped from 62 percent to 36 percent between 1950 and 2000, according to the census, while the percentage of married white women went from 67 percent to 57 percent in the same period. 

"Looking at the statistics, we are the least likely group in America to get married, and we have a higher divorce rate,” said Carlis Williams, regional director of the Aid to Children and Families division of the Department of Health and Human Services, which has planned a series of Healthy Marriage Forums in U.S. cities to air issues unique to African-American families.

Critics say the administration's proposal is not necessarily the key to resolving the African-American community's problems. Adding to the decline in marriage an increase in higher poverty and lower education rates for African-Americans, a triple threat hovers over the vibrancy of this community.

“This is not an easy problem; a whole series of things have happened to damage the quality of the black male pool in regards to marriage,” said Walters, who added that like many women, black women look for financial stability in a potential husband, a quality that is hard to come by in low-income communities.