Testimony

Statement by
Wade F. Horn, PH.D
Assistant Secretary for Children and Families
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
before the
Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
Subcommittee on Children and Families
U.S. Senate

April 28, 2004

Mr. Chairman and members of the subcommittee, thank you for calling this afternoon’s hearing on the president’s healthy marriage initiative and for giving me the opportunity to share the Administration’s work on this very important issue. I appreciate the subcommittee’s interest in promoting healthy marriages and your continued efforts to improve the health and well-being of children and families throughout our nation.

For thousands of years, healthy marriages have been the legacy of healthy families. President Bush, like members of the subcommittee, has focused on family formation and healthy marriages with an important purpose in mind: to enhance the well-being of children. As the President has stated: “My Administration is committed to strengthening the American family. Many one-parent families are also a source of comfort and reassurance, yet a family with a mom and dad who are committed to marriage and devote themselves to their children helps provide children a sound foundation for success. Government can support families by promoting policies that help strengthen the institution of marriage and help parents rear their children in positive and healthy environments.”

Why should government be in the business of supporting the formation and stability of healthy marriages? Because the research literature is now replete with studies showing that children raised in stable, healthy marriages are less at risk for a host of negative developmental outcomes compared to children raised in unstable, unhealthy and dysfunctional married households. We know, for example, that children raised in healthy married households are less likely to be poor, less likely to fail at school, and less likely to have an emotional or behavioral problem requiring psychiatric treatment, compared to those who are not. Moreover, as adolescents, they are less likely to commit crime, develop substance abuse problems or to commit suicide. Healthy marriages, it appears, are the best environment for rearing healthy children.

And it is not just children who benefit from healthy marriages. Research shows that adults in healthy marriages are happier, healthier and accumulate more wealth compared to those who are not. And communities with high rates of healthy marriages evidence fewer social pathologies, such as crime and welfare dependency, compared to those with low rates of healthy marriages.

Unfortunately, too many children today are growing up without the benefit of parents and grandparents in healthy, stable marriages. Indeed, more than half of all children today will spend some or all of their childhood in homes without a mom and dad in a healthy, stable marriage.

The Healthy Marriage Initiative

That is why President Bush proposed his healthy marriage initiative. He, like so many others, sees the good that often comes from healthy marriages. The President recognizes the importance of helping couples who choose marriage for themselves access services, on a voluntary basis, where they can develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain healthy marriages for the benefit of children, adults and society.

The good news is that in a remarkably short period of time, we have moved past the question of whether government ought to be involved in supporting healthy marriages to the question of how government should be involved in supporting healthy marriages. This shift from the question of “whether” to the question of “how” is an exceedingly important one – for it is not possible to seek solutions to a problem until, and unless, that problem is called by its correct name. Yes, there are many problems worth attending to. But strong and healthy marriages are as good as bedrock for strong and healthy societies. There are few things I know for certain, but here is one: A critical mass of healthy marriages help all societies to function well, and without that critical mass, they will forever be seeking new programs and services to cope with the ever increasing social problems that result from its absence.

What Government Ought Not to Do

One of the most important lessons we’ve learned when explaining the government’s role in promoting and strengthening healthy marriages is to first talk about what the government ought not to do.

First, government ought not to force anyone to get married. One very important America tradition is the belief in limited government. One of the areas in which government ought to be limited is the decision about whether or not a person should get married. That decision should remain completely up to the individual, ideally in consultation with the individual’s family. Government ought not to get into the business of interfering with that personal decision-making.

Second, government ought not – intentionally or otherwise – implement policies that will trap anyone in an abusive relationship. Domestic violence is, tragically, a terrible reality for far too many couples today. Marriage does not cure domestic violence. All too often, it exacerbates it. Whatever policies we implement, none of them should – either directly or indirectly – contribute in any way to this terrible problem.

Third, government ought not to promote marriage by withdrawing supports for single-parent families. I know of no evidence that says that child well-being is improved by withdrawing supports for single parents. Promoting healthy marriage ought to be about affirming healthy marriage, not denigrating single people. President Bush has said “Single mothers do amazing work in difficult circumstances, succeeding at a job far harder than most of us can possibly imagine. They deserve our respect and they deserve our support.” He’s right. Supporting healthy marriages cannot come at the expense of supporting children living in other family structures. All children are unique gifts from God, and each one – every one – deserves our support and encouragement, no matter what their family arrangement.

Finally, government ought not to promote marriage by being afraid to mention its name. There is something unique about the marital relationship that distinguishes it from other types of relationships. Preparing couples for marriage, therefore, is different from preparing them for other types of relationship arrangements. Relationship education, for example, is a good thing, and I support it. I would certainly favor helping individuals develop all sorts of good relationship skills. But marriage is fundamentally different from other types of relationships. As such, we ought not to shy away from using the word “marriage” if it is, indeed, marriage we seek to promote.

What Government Ought to Do

What, then, should government do? Here are three principles that I believe should underlie government’s role in supporting marriage.

First, we ought to make it clear that government is in the business of promoting healthy marriages. The fact is healthy marriages are good for children; dysfunctional and abusive marriages are not. Hence, government, as a strategy for improving the well being of children, ought to be in the business of promoting healthy marriages.

Second, government should not merely seek to be neutral about marriage. Governments are – and should be – neutral about lots of things. Take ice cream preference, for example. Government has no business promoting one flavor of ice cream over another because there is no evidence that individuals, couples, children, families or communities benefit from the choice of one flavor of ice cream over another. Hence, government is neutral when it comes to a personal preference for vanilla or strawberry ice cream.

But government is not neutral about lots of things – like home ownership or charitable giving – precisely because it can be shown that home ownership and charitable giving contribute to the common good. Hence, government provides incentives – primarily in the way of tax incentives – for home ownership and charitable giving. In much the same way, government, while not forcing anyone to marry, can – and should – provide support for healthy marriages precisely because it can be shown that healthy marriages contribute to the common good. As such, removing disincentives for marriage is fine – but that would only achieve neutrality. When it comes to something as important to society as healthy marriages, government cannot afford to simply be neutral.

Third, while we don’t know as much as we would like to know about how to promote healthy marriages, that shouldn’t be used as an excuse to do nothing. While it is true that we don’t have perfect knowledge when it comes to designing initiatives to support healthy marriages, we do know something. We do know, for example, that what separates stable and healthy marriages from unstable and unhealthy ones is not the frequency of conflict, but how couples manage conflict. Couples who are able to listen to each other with respect, communicate effectively and problem-solve conflict in healthy ways, report higher levels of marital satisfaction and are less likely to divorce than those who are not able to do so. The good news is that through marriage education, we can teach these skills and in so doing, increase the odds that couples will form and sustain healthy marriages – to the benefit of their children, themselves and society.

And new research is constantly shedding more light on our path. For example, research is dispelling the myth that couples – and especially low-income couples – no longer are interested in marriage as a life goal. Survey after survey shows that most young people continue to aspire to healthy, stable marriage. Even unmarried parents continue to aspire to marriage. According to researchers at Princeton and Columbia Universities, more than half of unmarried parents when asked at the time their child is born out-of-wedlock indicate that they are actively considering marriage – not some time to somebody, but to each other. Yes, we have much to learn – but government ought not to be paralyzed by imperfect knowledge. For in the words of the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev: “If we wait for the moment when everything, absolutely everything is ready, we shall never begin.”

What the Bush Administration is Doing

With these three principles in mind, the Bush Administration has undertaken the following bold initiatives to support the formation and stability of healthy marriages.

First, President Bush has proposed increased funding for marriage education services as part of the re-authorization of the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. Specifically, the President has requested spending $240 million annually to support innovative efforts to integrate supports for healthy marriage into existing government-sponsored welfare programs. Half of the money – $120 million – would be for a competitive matching grant program where states, territories and federally recognized tribes could develop innovative approaches to support healthy marriages. Expenditures would be matched dollar-for-dollar and federal TANF funds could be used to meet the matching requirement.

With these funds, states, territories, federally recognized tribes and tribal organizations, local governments, and community and faith-based organizations could conduct public education campaigns about the benefits of healthy marriages and how marriage education can help couples build healthy marriages; offer pre-marital education and marriage enrichment programs to help couples, on a voluntary basis, develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain healthy marriages; and provide targeted outreach to troubled marriages so that couples do not have to view divorce as the only alternative when they experience marital distress. The goal in all of these efforts will be on increasing the number of children growing up in healthy married households. Why? Because healthy marriages are good for kids, unhealthy marriages are not.

The other half of the money – another $120 million per year – would be available for research, demonstrations and technical assistance efforts focused primarily on healthy marriages and family formation.

Second, we are working to integrate support for healthy marriages into our existing array of social service programs. We have, for example, begun to integrate marriage education programs into our child welfare system, providing marriage education to couples as a way to reduce the risk of child abuse and neglect, for example, as well as providing marriage education to couples who adopt to help ensure the success of that adoption. We also have provided funding for the development of curriculums that include effective ways of the promoting of healthy marriages for schools that teach social work. And we’ve begun to integrate support for healthy marriages into services currently being offered through the child support enforcement system.

When it comes to promoting healthy marriages, we don’t believe in a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Different groups of people need different types of help. That’s why we also are targeting funds to help particularly vulnerable populations form and sustain healthy marriages. For example, we have added marriage education to the range of social services we offer to couples who come to America as refugees.

Each of these initiatives is not about subtraction – but addition. They are about adding supports for healthy marriages into our publicly financed service delivery system – a system that for far too long has been afraid to even speak the word “marriage.”

Finally, we also are seeking to integrate messages about the importance of healthy marriages into programs that seek to discourage teen pregnancy. The good news is that teen pregnancy is down in America. The not-so-good news is that the rate of out-of-wedlock childbearing for women in their 20’s is increasing. While we have given the clear message that, all things being equal, teenagers should avoid becoming fathers and mothers, we are less clear about telling them that they also should avoid becoming a mother or father until after they are married. We need to help our young better understand not just the value of waiting until they are “older” before becoming a parent, but also the value of waiting until they are married.

Of course, if our young people are going to avoid becoming parents before marriage, the best way for them to accomplish that is to be sexually abstinent until marriage. That is why President Bush also has proposed dramatic increases in funding for abstinence education programs. For as the President has said, “When our children face a choice between self-restraint and self-destruction, government should not be neutral. Government should not sell children short by assuming they are incapable of acting responsibly. We must promote good choices.” He’s right, of course. Good choices early on pave the way for healthy families in the future. If we succeed in implementing this vision, we will succeed in strengthening marriages and families for years to come.

But, some critics ask, is this really the function of government? Isn’t supporting healthy marriages too intrusive a role for advocates of limited government to propose? Good question and we have a good answer. To the extent to which we are successful in promoting healthy marriages, we will be successful in reducing the risk of many of the social ills that impede the healthy development of children, families, and, indeed nations. And if we are successful in preventing many of the social ills that impede the healthy development of children and families, we will also obviate the need for other more costly – and more intrusive – interventions.

We know, for example, that children who grow up in unhealthy marriages and experience family breakup are more likely to be abused and neglected. A compassionate society doesn’t stand idly by and tolerate children being abused and neglected, so we have a child welfare system, including the investigation of reports of abuse and neglect, and a foster care system to take care of children who are abused and neglected. But if we are successful in helping couples form and sustain healthy marriages, fewer children will be abused or neglected, and as a result there will be less need for child welfare services in the first place.

Indeed, as Assistant Secretary for Children and Families, I oversee 65 different social programs at a cost of nearly $47 billion dollars each year. Go down the list of these programs -- child welfare, child support enforcement, programs for runaway youth, anti-poverty programs – the need for each of these programs is either created or exacerbated by the breakup of families and marriages. If we are ever going to prevent the need for these services, we must begin preventing these problems from happening in the first place. One way to accomplish that is to help couples form and sustain healthy marriages.

The Importance of Leadership

The reason we have come so far in promoting healthy marriage in America is because of the leadership and commitment of President Bush. The President understands that the cry of the hearts of so many children is for their families and for the important role fathers can play in their lives. And he understands that the one important way to answer that cry is to become serious about renewing marriage.

During his first year in office, President Bush said this about the need to renew fatherhood by strengthening families:

“None of us is perfect. And so no marriage and no family is perfect. After all, we all are human. Yet, we need fathers and families precisely because we are human. We all live, it is said, in the shelter of one another. And our urgent hope is that one of the oldest hopes of humanity is this, to turn the hearts of children toward their parents, and the hearts of parents toward their young.”

Turning the hearts of children to their parents, and the parents to their young is, indeed, the great hope of our efforts to strengthen marriages in America. I know it is the great hope of members of this subcommittee as well.

Thank you.

Last Revised: April 29, 2004