Welfare Reform Credited for Rise in Marriage Rates

Marriage among low-income families is now on the rise, and some analysts credit the sweeping overhaul of the nation's social safety net with the change.

A recent study conducted by a Washington think tank found that children were less likely to be brought up in a single parent household in 2000 than in 1994 – especially children from low-income homes.

According to the study, conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the number of children living in a single parent household declined 8 percent between 1995 and 2000, to 18.4 percent from 19.9 percent. The study's researchers, Wendell Primus and Allen Dupree, called that decline "a statistically significant drop."

Moreover the total number of the nation's children living in married households increased to 70 percent, from 69.5 percent in 1995.

The greatest changes were in low-income families and among black and Hispanic households. According to the study, there was a "significant decline" in the number of children living in low-income, single parent families.

In the ten-year period from 1990 to 2000, for example, the number of black children in single parent households declined to 43 percent from 47 percent, and Hispanic kids in single parent households declined to 21 percent from 23.5 percent.

Role of Welfare Reform Is Debated

Primus resigned from the Clinton administration five years ago to protest the former president's decision to back the welfare reform proposal advanced by the Republican Congress.  He said at the time that the measure was unduly harsh. 

While he was hesitant to draw any sweeping connections between the federal welfare overhaul in 1996 and the increase in marriage indicated in his study, he wouldn’t ignore its role completely.

He noted that welfare reform has sent a message to parents. "For a woman, there is no longer a steady stream of income and she is more likely to [cohabit]," he said. "From the point of view of the dad, we have made it more likely that he will get caught up on the child support system."

And he admitted that tough welfare reform laws have created an atmosphere that "will lead to less breakup."

Primus pointed to other possible influences as well.  "I think there are a lot of factors here that are driving the results and outcomes. Welfare is one of them," he said Friday. "I also think there are a lot of other things going on." Primus said good economic conditions throughout the 1990s and the recent drop in teen pregnancy may have played a role.

But while the study's authors aren’t willing to tie their results to a change in social policy, conservatives who supported the welfare overhaul said it is time for their critics to acknowledge its benefits.

"You have an entire generation of welfare experts who basically predicted [welfare reform] was going to increase poverty. It didn’t," said Robert Rector, a welfare specialist at the Heritage Foundation.

Rector was quick to spread credit around, however. He said many of the changes could be traced to the first years of the Clinton administration, when the former president started talking tough on "ending welfare as we know it."

He said the former president's focus on combating illegitimate births helped strengthen family stability, too. After a 30-year rise, the rate of illegitimate births has been on the decline recently, he said, and is now hovering somewhere around 32 percent.

But Rector was less willing to credit some of the other factors cited by Primus, such as the strong economy.  "The liberals always like to find economic reasons for things," he said.  Rector suggested that a good economy might even have the opposite effect that Primus suggests, since it conceivably enables more women to remain single and independent.

"I think what you have here is cultural changes and welfare changes... that’s what’s going on," he said.