Thursday, April 12, 2007

(#3) A Call for Consistency: American Government Should Gear Policies Toward Children, Not Marriage


For years, the American government has used legal and economic incentives to encourage and reward marriage in our society, on the basis that the institution fosters the most stable environment for childrearing and family development. By allocating over $150 million per year to promoting marriage and by designating over 400 state and 1000 federal rights, benefits, and protections exclusively to that institution, the government aims to encourage couples to get and stay married.

But criticizing alternative environments’ inferior conduciveness to rearing healthy children—after denying their so-called underprivileged children the protections and benefits it offers to children via married parents—reflects circular reasoning. Since doing so inevitably hinders alternatives from so much as an opportunity to compare with the marital environment, reasoning behind current American policies begs the question of whether or not marriage is even the ideal institution for successful American family development.

If American policymakers’ true intention is to promote the wellbeing of children, they appear to be taking the wrong approach. Instead of designating exclusive benefits to an institution (i.e. marriage) indirectly associated with childrearing on the mere basis that it seems most conducive for it, they should instead direct policies toward all institutions in which childrearing occurs (e.g. cohabitant, same-sex, and single parenting). They should gear their policies toward making any existing situation that children are growing up in as conducive as possible to healthy childrearing.

Literature Review

Based on the 1996 finding that “Marriage is an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children,” the Bush administration passed the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, providing $150 million per year to the promotion of healthy marriages and fatherhood.[1]

"Research has shown that, on average, children raised in households headed by married parents fare better than children who grow up in other family structures . . . By supporting responsible child-rearing and strong families, my Administration is seeking to ensure that every child can grow up in a safe and loving home."[2]

Republican Kansas Senator Sam Brownback wrote a commentary expressing similar views as the above, spoken by President George W. Bush. In it, he declares that the government treats heterosexual unions with special interest over any other relationship because doing so “ensures a stable environment for the raising and nurturing of children.”[3] The value in promoting stable marriages between biological parents stems from understanding that children raised by single parents, step-families, or cohabiting couples face higher risks of poor developmental success. He further asserts, “Redefining marriage is certain to harm children and the broader social good.”[4]

But includes a statement on its website calling for American policy to acknowledge other familial forms besides marriage and include policies geared toward all families and relationships. The organization’s overall aim is to influence strengthening of security and stability of diverse family structures, in recognition that “families and relationships know no borders and will never slot narrowly into a single existing template.” It points out that U.S. Census findings inform us every year that diverse households are already the norm in our country, as the majority of citizens do not live in traditional nuclear families. Therefore, their statement insists that with this growing indication that marriage is not the only family form worth acknowledging, it should not be legally and economically privileged above other forms, which currently endure disservice due to their subordinate status to marriage:

All families, relationships, and households struggling for stability and economic security will be helped by separating basic forms of legal and economic recognition from the requirement of marital and conjugal relationship.[5]


President Bush’s above claim that, “Research has shown that, on average, households headed by married parents fare better than children who grow up in other family structures,” is not indicative of a reason to benefit marriage over other institutions as he asserts. It is, instead, indicative of a reason to benefit the alternative institutions in which children are inevitably and increasingly being raised.

A 2002 study, by Robert Lerman of Urban Institute, did find that married parents overall met fewer hardships and had a less difficult time overcoming the hardships they did meet, than did any other families with children. Even among the poor, married families with children faced material hardships at a substantially lower rate than any other, even when all couples compared were at or below the poverty line, even when the parents in either familial structure lacked a high school diploma, and even when the alternatives to marriage included two incomes.[6]

However, crediting greater financial success in childrearing to an institution that currently receives more aid than any other begs the question of whether or not that particular institution is most conducive to childrearing. Rather than prove that marriage really is more conducive to childrearing than any alternative, these and similar findings signify cause and effect ambiguities.

It's possible that the correlation between marriage and the ability to overcome financial hardship does not necessarily result from the institution of marriage itself, but from the opportunities that the rights and benefits the government associates it with make more feasible. We must realize that the possibility exists that the many rights and benefits already associated with marriage are the very reason these unions are (allegedly) so much more successful in childrearing—not vice versa. Undoubtedly, a positive correlation exists between marriage and successful childrearing, but the root of the cause and effect chain—especially relative to alternative institutions— remains unclear until we can strip away the privileges and extra resources now associated with marriage, and determine who fares best in childrearing then.

Furthermore, the question of whether or not marriage truly is the most conducive structure for childrearing is not only unsettled—it is ultimately irrelevant. If the government truly aims to promote the wellbeing of children by providing and encouraging stable environments for them to grow up in, regardless of what institution is most stable for them to grow up in, or allegedly best for them, the presence of allegedly “lesser” alternatives will remain. Policies should not penalize children of those “lesser” alternatives for the circumstances imposed on them, but should instead cater to their needs to ensure they are provided for as maximally as possible.

One might argue that both the claimed conduciveness of marriage and the exclusivity of its legal benefits are important since part of the reason the legal benefits for marriage exist is not to benefit children directly, but to counter the decline in marriage, which would ultimately land America’s children in the maximally beneficial institution. In the eyes of this hypothetical idealist, the children will gain more when the benefits finally shift the trends in their favor, than they would gain if the government directly provides a crutch for whatever insufficient alternative institution he might otherwise grow up in.

My response to that potential insistence, that the perks will bring marriage back in favor, is brief: it won’t, because it hasn’t. And there’s nothing in our society that indicates any chance that it will. If the plan was, in fact, to incite a shift in the trends by designating economic incentives to the favored institution, then the plan has failed miserably and it’s time to set a new one in motion. Despite the thousands of economic benefits associated, the decline in marriage persists while cohabitation, divorce, and unmarried childrearing increases.[7]

Over the span of 1990 and 2002, marriage rates decreased in 47 of our 50 states,[8] carrying on the trend of the decrease in the U.S. marriage rate by a third between 1970 and 1996. Meanwhile, the rate of unmarried, cohabiting couples grew nearly tenfold between 1960 and 1998[9]; divorce rates more than quadrupled between 1970 and 1996[10]; and between 1965 and 2002, the number of births outside of marriage has risen from 12% to 33%[11].

At the root of these statistical trends lie societal and historical trends that compounded to incite them. According to the co-directors of the National Marriage Project, the emergence of birth control that eliminated worry of pregnancy from sexual relations; women’s dramatic entry into the workforce; growing postponement of marriage until both partners become more settled and established financially and career-wise; and the shift in marriage for love instead of economic stability, allowing couples to marry voluntarily and for pleasure instead of obligatorily and for economic stability—all contributed, along with other factors over time, to the growing decrease in marriage.

It seems clear from these causes that have become ingrained in our society, that ignoring current trends in favor of benefiting a preferred ideal (i.e. marriage) is not going to make them disappear, or even decrease significantly. Again, if the ultimate concern regards America’s children, the focus of related policies should be on them and not on the union to which they’ve been subjected. Yet our government continues to hinder the potential childrearing success of any institution other than marriage.

Our government especially steps on its own toes when it comes to the gay marriage debate. Aiming to promote marriage, yet excluding a slew of couples who wish to take advantage of it on the basis that they don’t fit the traditional mold of man and woman, is possibly the most blatantly contradictory stance the government has taken in the matter or promoting marriage and healthy childrearing.

Whether same-sex couples fit that mold or not, Census 2000 findings reflect a reality that politicians and policymakers seem to intentionally ignore: Same-sex couples are raising children in at least 96% of all U.S. counties. And not only are 25% of all same-gender couples raising children, but they also have a significantly better rate of lasting commitment to one another than do heterosexual unmarried couples who are raising children. According to the findings of a 2006 study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, 41.1% of childrearing same-sex partners have been together 5+ years, compared to only 19.9% of heterosexual childrearing unmarried couples.[12] Thus, if the government so strongly believes that marriage would strengthen the environments for the children of heterosexual cohabitating partners, the same would be true for the many children that unmarried same-sex couples are raising throughout the country. Personal beliefs and so-called tradition do not change the fact that same-sex couples are raising children; and if the concern is with the best possible environment to bring children up in, then the government has no room to discriminate against this group of parents.

Again, I state these findings to call attention to our policymakers’ lack of consistency in pursuit of their so-called goal to strengthen American childrearing homes. In order to emphasize the need for reconsideration and consistency in our policies, it is important to point out such contradictions between our government’s stated aim and their actual course of action.

By excluding a large number of the very people who seek to solidify their union via marriage—our government’s “solution” of choice—the government screeches inconsistency with their alleged concern with the wellbeing of children. The blatant exclusions of committed same-sex partners who seek the allegedly stable, familial-conducive environment of marriage seem boldly counterproductive to Bush’s alleged cause of “seeking to ensure that every child can grow up in a safe and loving home.” One would think that if legal marriage yields the healthiest children, then Bush would be furthering his cause by legalizing same-sex marriage and thus making the associated securities available to the increasing number of children being raised by same-sex parents.

More findings of the study emphasize success in childrearing by same-sex parents. The researchers note, in their context for their own findings, that “…few differences have been found in research conducted over the last 3 decades comparing same-sex versus heterosexual parents’ levels of self-esteem, psychological adjustment, and attitudes toward child rearing.”[13] Their study, along with others, consistently failed to observe any differences between children raised in either circumstance, in regard to measures of personality, peer-group relationships, self-esteem, behavioral difficulties, academic success, or warmth and quality of family relationships.

The same study found that same-sex couples had more childrearing success than single parents:

…parents who raised children alone reported greater stress, increased severity of parent-child conflicts, and less warmth, enjoyment of parenting, and imaginative play than did parents in a couple relationship, whether lesbian or heterosexual. Teachers reported more behavioral problems among children in single-parent families than among children who had 2 parents in the home irrespective of their sexual orientation.[14]

Yet despite these and other findings that same-sex unions provide an environment just as stable and conducive to childrearing—if not more—as do unions between heterosexual parents, our policies continue to deprive same-sex parents of so much as the option of taking advantage of the rights and protections that serve to benefit children of married couples.

Again, I say all that to highlight the inconsistencies in our government’s current policy of rewarding marriage to strengthen childrearing environments, not to say that all families should have access to the institution in order to do so. I still maintain that the policies should focus on the children themselves, separate from the institutions in which they are raised.

The best way to encourage more stable childrearing environments all-around would be to end the indirect associations of beneficial policies for children through marriage, and instead designate them directly to any circumstance actually involving the upbringing of children. By strengthening any institution on the basis that children are involved, and not simply on the basis of a marriage, the government is much more likely to successfully encourage healthier, happier, more stable environments for our country’s children, across the board.

Terence Dougherty explored financial circumstances of real and hypothetical same-sex couples, comparing them to the possibilities that access to the same rights as married couples currently could offer them in comparison. By imagining the presence of children in their circumstances, and by broadening the context of the deprived individuals we’re considering beyond same-sex couples to any unmarried couple with children, be it a matter of cohabitation or single parenthood, we should be able to understand the effect these discriminatory benefits could have if refocused toward children instead of marriage. What parents would actually use the lost or gained funds for is irrelevant; the point to understand is the extent to which parents that our current policies penalize could gear their money toward increasing their children’s financial resources for food, shelter, clothing, education, etc.

The General Case
Dougherty first references a couple that must file their taxes separately, unlike married couples who have the option of filing jointly to lower tax liabilities. This option allows them a multitude of benefits including tax-free dependent health benefits, while members of same-sex or cohabitating couples pay taxes on the value of dependent health benefits they’ve utilized in the past year, which is one factor that may further increase their tax liability. Single parents must also pay taxes on any benefits he/she may have utilized toward the child on his/her own in the past year.

As a result of the couple’s exclusion from this privilege, their combined federal and state income tax liability was 25% higher ($2689 more) than it would have been had they been able to file a joint return.[15] Over the span of 18 years an averaged excess payment of $2689 represents $48,402 a couple could have saved toward their child’s college education.

The Death of a Parent
Next, Dougherty explored the application of social security survivor benefits, the result of designating a portion of all social security payments toward survivor’s insurance, to be given to a surviving spouse in the event that his/her mate dies. The couple he referenced in this example would have had a social security benefit of $1952 per month for the survivor if his partner died. But currently, with this benefit only associated with married couples, the survivor would receive nothing, left to fend for himself and his child on a single income where they’d previously had access to two. Associating that right with the presence of a child instead of the presence of a marriage certificate ensures the child in this hypothetical situation the continuation of the deceased parent’s income rather than suddenly leaving him completely reliant on the income of the one surviving parent. And again, in consideration of the college fund, making that association would represent $421,632 more to set aside for the child over 18 years.

The final example Dougherty explores involves gift taxing, using a hypothetical example this time, of a lesbian couple Susan and Mary. If Susan wishes to invest her $3,000,000 worth of investment assets in a mutual fund for herself and Mary, federal and state law would classify that transaction as a $1,500,000 gift to Mary and tax her a total of $285,360. But if they were entitled to the same breaks as legally married couples currently have, they would have paid nothing in gift taxes, and that much more money would exist for the children’s potential benefit.

These examples represent only a few of the opportunities that unmarried parents have no access to despite the governmental claim that these benefits serve to aid the establishment of a more financially stable environment in which families are being raised. One couple facing all these hindrances have their financial liability to the government compounded to a hindering amount in comparison to those of married parents, who can and will use much of the money they save, on their children. Combined, the three families above represent a total potential loss of $755, 394. A family facing the combination of these possible hindrances plummets below the playing field by the same amount that the family with these benefits advances above it. This may seem like an extreme case, but these examples only account for three of the thousands of benefits that our current policies deny unmarried parents, and could easily reflect a real potential circumstance: general tax liabilities combined with a sudden death of one parent that leaves behind an inheritance. For no reason should a child be denied $755,294 that another child has access to, simply because he has unmarried parents. This drastic difference in tax liability that penalizes unmarried families’ children greatly indicates a dire need to level the playing field if our government is truly concerned with the wellbeing of America’s children.

I realize that more contributes to children’s wellbeing than their financial circumstances. According to another analysis, there are plenty more factors besides more stable finances that contribute to making marriage the ideal circumstance for childrearing. The analysis claims that cohabitating relationships yield greater rates of unhappiness, dissatisfaction, and dysfunctional relationship behavior.[16] Heather Long, Community Director for, references marriage’s common association with stability in our society. According to her, this association exists because married people tend to lead longer, healthier, more financially stable lives that yield the most confident and secure offspring.[17]

However, even if those assertions are true, I see no productive potential in the government only further hindering alternative structures in comparison to married families. Marriage as an institution may offer significant benefits of its own, but there is no need for the government to contribute to the gap between married families’ potential success in childrearing, to non-married families’ potential. Ignoring the reality that alternatives are on the rise, in favor of wishful thinking that the ideal of marriage will resurface as the norm, is unfair to the children our policymakers claim to be so concerned about. They should not jeopardize the wellbeing of our society and its children simply on the basis of its bias toward the undeniably faltering institution of marriage.

[1] Administration for Children of Families. “ACF Healthy Marriage Initiative.” (2007). 12 April 2007 .
[2] Administration for Children of Families.
[3] Brownback, Sam. “Defining Marriage Down.” National Review Online. (2004). 12 April 2007 .
[4] Brownback.
[5] Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Families and Relationships. BeyondMarriage.Org. (2006). 12 April 2007 .
[6] Lerman, Robert I. “How Do Marriage, Cohabitation, and Single Parenthood Affect the Material Hardships of Families with Children?” Urban Institute. (2002). 12 April 2007 .
[7] Marriage Statistics. Chicagoland Marriage Resource Center. (2007). 15 April 2007 .
[8] Marriage and Divorce Rates by State: 1990, 1995, and 1999-2002. Department of Health and Human Services: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 15 April 2007 .
[9] Marriage Statistics.
[10]Divorce Rates. Americans for Divorce Reform. (2006). 15 April 2007 .
[11] Sigle-Rushton, Wendy, and Sara McLanahan. “For Richer or Poorer? Marriage as an Anti-Poverty Strategy in the United States.” Population, Vol. 57: 509-526. (2002). 12 April 2007 .
[12] Pawelski.
[13] Pawelski.
[14] Pawelski.
[15] Dougherty, Terence. “Economic Benefits of Marriage: Under Federal and Connectitcut Law.” National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute. (2005). 12 April 2007 .
[16] Marriage Statistics.
[17] Long, Heather. “American Society Favors Marriage.” (2006). 12 April 2007 .


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