Time to strengthen unmarried couples

By Pajarita Charles

Services to improve relationship quality and stability can lead to better child outcomes.

The evidence is clear: Long-term relationship stability among low-income couples is increasingly rare.

Despite unmarried new parents’ high hopes for the future and their expectations of marriage, over 40 percent split up by the time their child is one year old.

Non-marital childbearing and unstable relationships are problematic on two fronts.

First, single mothers are more likely to be poor than their married counterparts.

Second, children from single-parent homes typically do worse on a range of educational, behavioral and developmental dimensions than children from “traditional” married two-parent families.

Heated debate over effective strategies to stem the growing trend of female headship has thrust marriage, an institution historically reserved for private governance, into the public domain.

The Bush administration has proposed spending $1.5 billion over five years to promote marriage and discourage out-of-wedlock births among fragile families.

Policymakers are experimenting with “healthy marriage” services to improve relationship skills and alter family formation patterns.

Whether improved child outcomes will result from encouraging marriage or targeting other aspects of relationships such as communication and parenting skills remains to be seen.

Although the answer to this question will likely emerge in years to come, now is the time to learn how best to support and strengthen disadvantaged couples.

Even though focusing on couple issues deviates from traditional efforts to help low-income families, it is an area of service that deserves strong consideration.

Although government promotion of marriage warrants serious questioning, there is value in helping couples build secure, happy and healthy lives because children do better in stable and strong families. Programs that serve families in poverty should focus on whole families, including unmarried mothers and fathers.

Services should be made available to help couples improve the quality and long-term stability of their relationship, as well as address issues of employment, education, domestic violence, and mental health.

Arguably, the promotion of marriage perhaps falls outside the role of government, but it is the public’s responsibility to protect and improve the lives of children.

If helping new parents strengthen their relationship also improves child outcomes, let us not be so quick to reject these efforts because of deep-rooted beliefs about the privacy of family decisions or seemingly conservative values.

Children do not play politics; in this case, nor should we.

Pajarita Charles is a doctoral student at the School of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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