Government policies that promote marriage as a way to boost disadvantaged women out of poverty and off welfare are likely to have mixed results at best, according to a new national study.

The results suggest that preventing unwed childbearing may be more important than promoting marriage in helping women economically, said Daniel Lichter, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

"Marriage is no panacea for women who had children before they got married," Lichter said. "Marriage cannot offset the economic disadvantages associated with out-of-wedlock childbearing."

Findings showed that about 30 percent of women who had babies before marriage are poor, compared to only 8 percent of women who had a birth after marriage and 5 percent of married women who were childless.

President Bush and other Republican leaders have made marriage promotion a key part of the welfare reform bill now up for reauthorization before the U.S. Congress. Both the U.S. House and the Senate are considering bills that would spend up to $350 million for programs that would promote marriage for disadvantaged women as a way to get them off welfare. Many states already have such programs. For example, West Virginia gives poor married couples an extra $100 a month in their welfare checks.

But until now, there has been little research to determine if marriage really is helpful, Lichter said. The results of this study suggest "if marriage is a public policy goal, then government and other groups must first attend to the business of reducing unwed childbearing."

Lichter conducted the study with J. Brian Brown, a graduate student at Ohio State, and Deborah Roempke Graefe of Pennsylvania State University. The study appears in the current issue of the journal Social Problems.

The study involved 7,665 women aged 25 to 44 who participated in the National Survey of Family Growth, conducted by the federal National Center for Health Statistics. The survey asked participants about pregnancy, childbearing, and reproductive and child health. The survey was conducted in 1995.

In one sense, the results showed that marriage does seem to be associated with a better standard of living, Lichter said. Overall, married women have a poverty rate that is about two-thirds that of unmarried women. But a closer look showed that the benefits don't often go to women who had children out-of-wedlock.

Women who had children before marriage are less likely to get married in the first place, and when they do, they are less likely to stay married and they are less likely to marry a man with good economic prospects, Lichter said.

About 87 percent of all women today are expected to marry before age 40, but for women with a child born outside of marriage, the figure is only 70 percent, according to the study.

Staying married is also made more difficult by unwed childbearing. "Hasty marriages motivated by a pregnancy are highly unstable, with divorce rates well above the national average," Lichter said. "Unwed mothers are also more likely than other women to be in unstable or serial relationships."

For example, the study showed that only 30 percent of teen unwed mothers who later married were still in first marriages at the time of the survey.

And marriage can actually be a disadvantage for unwed mothers if they later divorce, the researchers found. These women had higher rates of poverty than did women who were unmarried.

"They may be worse off than if they had never married at all," Lichter said. "Considering that about one-third of all women who had babies before marriage are now currently divorced, this suggests marriage is not a panacea for them."

The other major issue is that unwed mothers are less likely to marry men who can help support them, the findings showed. Only about 37 percent of non-Hispanic white teen mothers marry men with more than a high school diploma, compared to 57 percent of those without an out-of-wedlock birth.

"To be sure, marriage confers clear economic benefits for unwed mothers who marry and stay married," Lichter said. "But the problem is that a large majority of unwed mothers today don't marry, don't stay married, or don't marry good providers."

The findings of this study suggest that government marriage promotion cannot substitute for other policies to help the disadvantaged, such as minimum wage legislation, affirmative action, and education and training programs, Lichter said. And more attention needs to be paid to preventing unwed childbearing.

"The goal of strengthening families might be best served through a larger package of social and economic policies that promote the marital, educational and employment needs of the disadvantaged," he said.

The research was supported in part by grants from the Russell Sage Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

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Social Problems