Marriage or healthy relationships?

Has over 25 years experience in policy analysis, evaluation and consultation in the health field with a particular focus on mental health.

The welfare reform reauthorization bill recently passed by the House of Representatives proposes to spend $200 million in order to “encourage the formation and maintenance of healthy two-parent married families.” Sponsors of this bill believe that marriage is a way to assure that children have supportive fathers and escape poverty.

The actual experience of single mothers on welfare—called TANF federally and CalWORKs in California—contradicts this belief. Fathers of children receiving assistance often lack two basic requirements of an adequate marriage partner or father: motivation and skills to earn an adequate income, and the personal characteristics to be a caring partner and father. In recent interviews with 643 randomly selected female single heads of household receiving CalWORKs in two California counties, we found that only 31 percent of the women received child support while more than half of the women under age 25 reported that they had experienced abuse from their partner in the last 12 months. Thirty percent report having been physically abused during one of their pregnancies.

What is the advantage of a marriage to children or mother if the father is not able to contribute to the family financially—or worse, is emotionally or physically abusive? Rather than urging marriage in such families, we should (1) help women build their self-esteem so they can make whatever decision about marriage is in their and their children’s best interest, and (2) help young men obtain the skills to get good jobs that can support a family.

Women who have been in unhealthy relationships often have their confidence shattered. Welfare reform programs can help women in poor relationships by offering them domestic violence counseling so they can make their own informed choices about whether or not to stay in a relationship. One woman says of her domestic violence counseling, “That is when I started learning how to live life. I started finding out I didn’t have to take abuse from men, and there were different men. I just had to change myself to change the men that were in my life.”

Massive efforts are also needed to help young men in poor communities stay in school and learn the job skills they need to support a family. The TANF reauthorization bill should be rewritten in the Senate to drop language about promoting marriage. The $200 million should instead be used for domestic violence services and to help young men acquire the skills they need to get and keep good jobs.