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Marriage Skills, Federal Style

President Bush wants to lead single welfare parents to the altar. But can he make them enjoy marital bliss?

That's the key issue in Mr. Bush's renewed push for passage of his "Healthy Marriage Plan," which would spend $1.5 billion in federal and state funds to promote marriage to welfare recipients. The idea is to encourage couples to marry and learn the skills to keep marriages together.

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The House, and a Senate committee, have already passed the measure. But some Senate Democrats question the plan's merits.

Indeed, having the federal government involved in what many people regard as a sacred institution does raise concerns. While such marriage counseling and training would be strictly voluntary, many low-income individuals may think it's not. And the idea that married welfare recipients are better able to stay out of poverty has yet to be fully proven. Forty percent of poor children live in two-parent homes, according to the most recent Census. One study by Daniel T. Lichter, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University, found that although women from disadvantaged families gained some economic benefit from marriage, those who married and then divorced experienced even higher poverty rates than those who never married at all.

Lifting individuals out of poverty requires more than marriage. It also takes a good education, job training, and decent housing.

Just the same, a married couple can often provide the best environment for children. Some states already have programs to promote stable marriages, and are getting results. If more welfare children are raised with two parents, they might avoid the trap of becoming welfare dependents themselves.

With safeguards to avoid any inherent coercion, Bush's plan deserves a test. Single parents on welfare may have never considered getting advice on making a marriage work.

A free course, freely chosen, might help reduce poverty or, at the least, give more welfare kids a stable two-parent home.

And the program could end up paying for itself in savings on welfare.