Congress urged to provide economic, social incentives to preserve family

By Cheryl Wetzstein THE WASHINGTON TIMES /April 15, 1998

If marriage is the core of the family, and family is the bedrock of society, what can Congress can do to encourage marriage?

That's the question raised at a recent Capitol Hill seminar.      

The panel of experts came up with several answers: Change the tax code to reward marriage; promote marriage's healthful effects; and decry divorce and family breakdown as a public health crisis.      

"It may seem strange to be affirming the institution of marriage, and yet we have to," said Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican, who convened the briefing.      

Noting sadly that even his immediate family has experienced a divorce, the senator said: "I don't know if you could find a family in America that hasn't experienced it."      

Since Republicans took over Congress, several Republican leaders have touted their support for marriage. Their stance is apparent in the 1996 welfare law, which Republicans wrote and which begins by stating, "Marriage is the foundation of a successful society." Additionally, the $50 million-a-year abstinence-education grant calls for children to be taught a "mutually faithful, monogamous relationship in the context of marriage is the expected standard of human sexual activity."      

Recently, several Republicans introduced legislation to change the tax code to eliminate the so-called "marriage penalty," a tax rule that makes married couples pay higher taxes than they would if they were single.      

But to many observers, these things are not nearly sufficient to counteract the trends toward cohabiting, divorce and unwed childbearing.      

Many panelists agreed that Congress can do many things to support marriage -- beginning with promotion of marriage as a healthy, happy lifestyle for adults and children.      

"We haven't made it clear that marriage matters," said Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. Instead, she said, society has sent the ridiculous message that "kids shouldn't see a bad or boring marriage."      

All married couples have differences, added Mrs. Sollee. What makes those differences "irreconcilable" -- a top reason for divorce -- is that the partners don't develop the skills to work out those differences, she said.      

Historically, people learned how to relate to each other -- and to God -- through the institutions of family, school and church, said Patrick Fagan, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation.      

With the weakening of these "relationship-building" institutions, the sexes have become alienated from each other, he said. As a result, "adult men and women can't stand each other enough to stay together to take care of the kids."      

Through its policies affecting family, schools and faith-based groups, "Congress can either add to the problem or help trim the problem," Mr. Fagan said.      

Several panelists outlined tax or other economic policies that could support marriage. Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society in Rockford, Ill., suggested Congress should:

-Tax married couples as a unit instead of individuals.

-Allow married couples to add up their income and divide by two, in effect, "splitting" their income so they can pay taxes at the lower rates.

-Remove tax liability for families with three or more children.

-End inheritance taxes so families can pass all their accumulated wealth to their children.

     Other panelists talked about how congressional policies and other social forces have worked to undermine marriage.      

Congress has unwittingly hurt marriage and intact families by giving a wealth of benefits to families led by single mothers, said Maggie Gallagher, a columnist and scholar affiliated with the Institute for American Values in New York.      

These policies have helped make marriage virtually disappear in some communities, she said.      

Now, she added, Congress is trying to prop up another "fragile family form" -- families with two full-time working parents -- with child care benefits and medical leave policies.      

Government policy, including taxes, "should allow families to choose" whether both parents will work, Miss Gallagher said.      

Theodora Ooms, executive director of the Family Impact Seminar, and Eugene Steuerle, a scholar at the Urban Institute, urged lawmakers to keep marriage policy initiatives bipartisan and avoid making people defensive.      

Conservative lawmakers have already fashioned a "paradox," Miss Ooms noted. The 1996 welfare reform is requiring poor, single women to work and find child care. Now, some of the same lawmakers are trying to fashion child-care credits so that other mothers can stay home with their children.      

Several panelists, including Family Research Council consultant William Mattox and Institute for American Values President David Blankenhorn, urged Congress to declare boldly both the benefits of marriage and the disastrous social costs when marriage is omitted from family life.      

"I wish the Republican Party would make this its credo: that to bring a child into the world when you're not prepared [to care for it] is wrong," said Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute.      

"If you can say that, you can talk about the other things," added Mr. Murray, who has frequently denounced society's indulgence of "lousy" parents.      

Panelists also suggested Congress support marriage by:

-Requiring all federally funded surveys to collect data on marital status.

-Requiring all babies born of minor mothers to be placed under adult guardianship.