Research suggests welfare changes can promote stable families

findings by researchers at Columbia and Princeton universities provide support for those who believe government can promote marriage and stable family life among the nation's most disadvantaged households. The findings are being published just as Congress begins the reauthorization process for landmark welfare legislation of 1996.

The findings, part of a five-year, $17 million research effort, "The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study," suggest that unwed parents have high hopes and expectations of having strong families, including marriage, but are severely hampered by poor education and low earnings. Changes in welfare and child support policies would go far to help, the researchers conclude.

Current welfare and child support policies create obstacles for unwed parents to stay together after the birth of their child despite these parents' desires to form families, the researchers found. As a remedy, they argue legislators should take a variety of steps to encourage family formation for unwed parents, including better child support enforcement, eliminating marriage penalties in the Earned Income Tax Credit and creating job training programs.

The research team, led by Irwin Garfinkel of Columbia University and Sara McLanahan of Princeton University, drew its conclusions from seven studies that appear in "Fragile Families and Welfare Reform," a special April issue of Children and Youth Services Review, a social work journal. Those studies are based on interviews with 2,325 mothers and 1,759 fathers at the time of birth in seven U.S. cities (Austin, Texas, Baltimore, Md., Detroit, Mich., Newark, N.J., Oakland, Calif., Philadelphia, Pa., and Richmond, Va.).

"Current welfare and child support policies too often undermine rather than strengthen fragile family ties," said Garfinkel. "The 1996 law made improvements in this area, but not enough. Because welfare includes an income test, it encourages couples to live apart-or to pretend to do so-pushing fathers out of the picture."

"One way to reduce disincentives to marriage and co-habitation in welfare policy is to ensure that fathers who live apart from their children pay child support," said McLanahan. "However, child support enforcement alone is insufficient. Bolstering education and job-training programs as well as conflict resolution and drug and alcohol treatment programs soon after the birth of the baby is crucial. Offering these services years later, after a father's relationship with the mother has ended, is too late to help the nation's fragile families."

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Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601