from The Hartford Couriant
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer
Is promoting marriage a key to lifting Connecticut's low-income children out of poverty?
A national expert on welfare reform believes it is.
Ron Haskins, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, and a special adviser to President Bush on welfare policy, pushed marriage - including same-sex marriage - as a tool for reducing poverty during an appearance this week in Hartford.
Haskins, a Republican and former staffer on the House Ways and Means Committee who helped write the country's 1996 welfare reform legislation, said his research shows marriage as the second most influential factor in reducing poverty rates, according to a computer simulation he created based on census data for 2001.
The single most effective factor was an obvious one, full-time work. But marriage ranked second, Haskins said, more effective, in fact, than increasing education, reducing family size and doubling cash payouts for welfare recipients.
Haskins was a guest speaker at the Connecticut Association for Human Services' annual release of its Kids Count report Monday at the Legislative Office Building. This year's report focused on helping children of low-income working families. The association recommended creating a state earned income tax credit, expanding worker training and education and restoring budget cuts to state-funded child care as ways to address the issue.
The report mentioned nothing about the advantages of promoting marriage, which has become a hot-button issue among some conservative Republicans in Congress.
"If you are concerned about children, then children will have a better chance in a married-couple family," Haskins said. "There are advantages to children living in a married-couple family," Haskins said. "And government cannot make up that difference."
Haskins told his audience that the "bully pulpit" - politicians, policy-makers and other opinion-formers must stress the case that marriage is one of the surest means of furthering the interests of poor children. He did not press for any specific governmental policies.
Notably, Haskins said that his theory on the benefits of marriage includes gay couples, an admitted break from the position held by many conservative Republicans. Creating jobs, providing support for low-income parents entering the workforce and expanding quality preschool programs are also crucial in helping improve the lives of impoverished families and children over the long term, Haskins said.
The human services association had invited Haskins to spark a dialogue about addressing poverty in Connecticut, a major social issue here yet one that often gets overlooked because of the state's stature and wealth.
In 2006, 215,770 children - one in four - in Connecticut live in low-income families, defined as those families with income below 200 percent of the federal poverty level or $40,000 for a family of four, according to the association for human services report.
And while the Constitution State continues to enjoy its stature as one of the wealthiest states in the country, it has the third largest income gap in the nation. Over half of urban Connecticut children live in low-income families, according to the Kids Count report. Only 15 percent of children in Connecticut suburbs live in low-income families, the report said.
Hartford continues to have the second-highest child poverty level for a city its size in the country - 41 percent, second only to Brownsville, Texas.
Jodie Levin-Epstein, deputy director and senior policy analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Law and Social Policy, conceded that Haskins' position on marriage has some merit. Research has shown that children reap significant benefits when they are in stable, supportive married couple households, she said.
But Levin-Epstein, who was also an invited speaker Monday, said that some of that benefit is a direct result of having two working parents and two incomes in the average family.
Levin-Epstein said putting money into the hands of low-income parents through an earned income tax credit also helps. She said existing research in the United Kingdom, where officials are trying to eradicate poverty by 2020, shows that low-income families do not use the additional money for alcohol or tobacco as some might believe, but for work-related costs such as improving their transportation, buying a phone or getting better food for their kids.
Levin-Epstein, a Democrat, said her main concern about advocating marriage is when it becomes a matter of government policy. She said there are also studies that show children of couples who divorce are sometimes worse off than those in single-parent households because of the resulting emotional turmoil and other issues. Stability and support in a two parent home is key, she said.
Haskins, who also serves as co-director of the Center on Children and Families at Brookings and is a senior consultant to the prominent Annie E. Case Foundation helping disadvantaged children in Baltimore, countered that government is already in the marriage business. He listed state regulations regarding marriage licenses and the federal tax code for married families as two instances where government directly intervenes.
Connecticut's requirements for issuing a marriage license - that there must be a man and a woman - are being challenged in a lawsuit now before the state Supreme Court. The suit, filed by eight same-sex couples, says the state law authorizing civil unions did not go far enough and that gay marriages should not be denied.
Levin-Epstein said that Connecticut, with its Republican governor and Democratic legislature and with its commitment to reduce poverty by half by 2014, stands to be a national model for other states to follow.
The gap between Connecticut's most wealthy and most needy is growing, she said. Research shows that the greatest competition for new jobs in Connecticut through 2012 will be for either highly paid, highly skilled jobs or low paid, low-skilled jobs.
Unless currently low-paid workers get training, education and support for advancement, the despair and disparity that now exists will only grow at taxpayer expense.
"Hope fosters creativity and risk and it is that creativity that brings advancement," Levin-Epstein said. "With increased disparity, we increase despair and with increased despair it is hard to move forward as a community."
Contact Colin Poitras at email@example.com.
The full Kids Count report can be found at www.cahs.org.
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