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To Fight Poverty, Promote Marriage

James Q. Wilson lays out the need for a new focus on strengthening families.
The new president should realize that poverty in the United States is primarily a problem confronting children and young unwed mothers. Though welfare reform has contributed to the increase in employment and a reduction in welfare payments among unwed mothers, it has done little to increase the prospects of women having children after they are married. But unless the nation increases the proportion of two-parent families, children will continue to face the risk of small incomes, weak work habits, and a willingness to be recruited by gangs.

To achieve this goal American culture must be changed. No easy government policy or obvious economic arrangement will make much difference. Bill Cosby has made this point forcefully, and his argument has been put into print by Juan Williams. The data scholars have suggest that if young people finish high school, get married before having children, and have that child after they are twenty years old, only 8 percent of them will become poor. If they do none of these three things, 78 percent of them will be poor.

The chief task of a president who wishes to reduce poverty is to announce and repeat frequently this cultural message. Every president in recent years has suggested this view, but none has made it a central focus of his rhetorical leadership. To reinforce this message, a national conference on this matter should be held that will suggest other policy changes (most of them, I suspect, will occur in private and religious circles) that can strengthen marriage. There are many private ventures that claim, perhaps rightly, that they can achieve this goal, but scarcely any of them have had their programs carefully tested by independent observers.

The Department of Health and Human Services should launch an ambitious program, building on the good progress it has made to date, to identify and test marriage promoting programs so that those that work can be widely advertised.