It’s a decade now since President Clinton signed the “1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” The intention of this bill was to ensure that welfare recipients don’t become entrenched in the system and never find work. Supporters at the time claimed that women, in particular single mothers, were motivated to have children and not to get married, simply so that they could receive money.
That’s rubbish, of course.
Kathryn Edin is a sociologist at University of Pennsylvania and she co-wrote what many experts agree is a leading text on poverty Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage. In it she points out what ought to be obvious. Poor women don’t have children in order to get a pittance from welfare, and they don’t avoid marriage because they have shaky morals. Instead, these women have children because it’s one of the few forms of empowerment they have open to them. Furthermore, they dream of getting married, but they hold marriage in such high regard, that they hold off until they are in love and confident that their marriages will last. In short, these women aren’t examples of the decay of morals in society. They share the same conservative views as most of their neighbors in the suburbs of big cities and in the heartland of the United States.
In spite of that, the first line of of the 1996 welfare reform act is “Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.” The law openly intended social tinkering with a goal of restoring the nuclear family and help lift single parent families out of poverty. It’s easy to see that single parents have a harder time making ends meet than couples. How is the woman to nurse her three month old while working at Wal*mart (or anywhere, for that matter?) And the State (that means you!) definitely has stock in this matter, because it costs money to support people on welfare.
It’s this kind of argument, along with threats of decay of moral society that are spawning an almost war-like posturing “in defense of marriage.” I happen to agree that welfare costs taxpayers a lot of money and that when people share the burden of raising a child, there is a greater chance of success for them (and a much happier child!) I can see how the State, then, would have an interest in encouraging this behavior. What doesn’t follow is why the State is involved in supporting what is essentially a religious rite.
State needs only to encourage that two (or more) people live together in a semi-permanent bond that spreads economic burden between them. Whether these people are married in a church or friends for the past 20 years is immaterial. Whether people choose to live in a commune or a same-sex partnership is certainly unimportant to the State, who’s only interest need be that young citizens grow up in a nurturing environments where they go to school and get enough to eat. Whether people acknowledge their bond in front of God, Buddha, Flying Spaghetti Monster or no one at all, is really none of the government’s business.
The government needs to get out of the marriage business altogether.
What the State should support are stable relationships, for these are what is best for its young citizens. Why would a couple, married in a church six months ago, deserve more rights than a same-sex partnership that has lasted 12 years? Odds are that the married couple won’t be together seven years from now, but after surviving 12 years so far, the gay pair will probably be able to stick it out longer still. Which would have been a more economically stable environment for a child?
What if instead the government were to offer the rights and privileges to, I’ll call it “legal partnerships” on the condition that they, just for example, have demonstrated successful co-habitation for two years or more? Any couple (or group for that matter) who has shown that they can successfully live together for this period, provided they wish the economic and tax advantages of partnership, must now go through the same legal wrangling if they choose to dissolve the partnership. This “legal partnership” should have the benefits and challenges associated with what we call marriage today. But entry into it should not be restricted to those who believe in a certain religions. Entry into this partnership should be offered to those who have demonstrated a chance at success, because that is what the government needs to promote: stable economic relationships that will lift families out of poverty.
Social conservatives (none of whom probably read this blog in the first place
It’s true that single parents have it harder. There are dozens of studies showing children raised in these conditions have a more difficult time than those raised by two parents. In addition to being a just proposal that is fair to all religious and non-religious citizens, such a legal partnership might enable some of those poor women to encourage an economic partnership while still maintaining their high regard for marriage. Regardless, it’s still none of the government’s business what the situation is by which these partners have chosen a legal bond. The sooner the government get’s out of the marriage business the better it will be for marriages and children alike.