Marriage incentives for poor considered By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 5/22/2001
WASHINGTON - The Bush administration and key members of Congress, dismayed by the failure of welfare reform to reduce the number of single-parent families, are eyeing mandatory programs to promote marriage among the poor.
It's widely expected that when Congress renews the 1996 welfare law next year, social conservatives will press to earmark millions of dollars for marriage education, require states to end some income tests that discourage parents from getting married, and reward single mothers with cash bonuses if they marry the child's father.
''If we are serious about restoring marriage, public policy will have to do more than simply strive toward marriage neutrality, by removing financial disincentives for marriage,'' Wade Horn, President Bush's nominee for assistant secretary of family support at the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote in a recent article. ''It needs to show that it values marriage by rewarding those who choose it.''
Today, a House Ways and Means subcommittee with jurisdiction over renewing welfare funds will hold a hearing on marriage and receive testimony from state officials who are experimenting with marriage-promotion programs, as well as from social scientists who study families in poverty and from the founders of Marriage Savers, a nationwide ministry aimed at getting clergy to be more active against divorce.
''I am very concerned by the continued decline of the married, two-parent family in America,'' said Representative Wally Herger, the California Republican who chairs the subcommittee. He cited 2000 Census Bureau figures that show the number of families headed by a woman grew nearly five times faster in the 1990s than the number of married couples with children.
Herger, a Mormon and father of eight, said in a statement that before Congress extends the $16.5 billion Temporary Assistance for Needy Families bloc grant, he wants to consider ''additional approaches, or programmatic changes, that may hold promise in better promoting marriage and family formation and discouraging illegitimacy.''
Observers agree that only a handful of states have made any attempt to meet the goal of promoting marriages that was explicitly stated in the 1996 welfare law, or to use the flexibility Congress gave them to spend welfare funds for reducing out-of-wedlock births.
''Their track record has been abysmal,'' said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who advanced the family-formation policy ideas in 1996. ''In the next round, what conservatives and some moderates, I believe, will be asking for are requirements in the law that these goals be carried out.''
The marriage-promotion issue is difficult for many Democratic lawmakers. While most acknowledge that two-parent families help lift children out of poverty, and some, including Vice President Al Gore in the past campaign, have advocated responsible-fathering programs, many fear that earmarking money for untested marriage-promotion initiatives will deny assistance to single parents in need.
A senior Democratic aide said the big question is whether Republicans are going to force states to set up marriage programs or take money from the Temporary Assistance bloc grant and fund a separate marriage initiative. ''Both would be very controversial and set off a very partisan fight,'' the aide said.
The fight already has been joined by the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, which last week launched an attack on Horn's nomination. If confirmed by the Senate, Horn, who was at HHS in the previous Bush administration and then founded the private National Fatherhood Initiative, would be the administration's point man on the welfare legislation.
''Wade Horn wants the government to discriminate against families that don't meet his ideal,'' said Tim Casey, a lawyer for the NOW fund. ''In benefit programs where there is not enough for everybody, single-parent families would go to the back of the line.''
Feminist groups generally are suspicious of marriage-promotion programs, arguing that social conservatives want men to be head of the household and have little regard for the women who leave marriage, or won't marry, because of domestic violence.
Tony Jewell, an HHS spokesman, said he can find nothing in Horn's record to justify NOW's attack. The group's attacks, he said, are a politically motivated response to Bush's policies supporting strong families. ''NOW is looking for someone to oppose, so they are demonizing Wade Horn.''
Isabel Sawhill, a Brookings Institution economist who has co-authored policy papers with Horn, praised the nominee and said he was getting ''a bum rap.'' But she questioned whether the marriage-promotion proposals in the Republican Congress could spin out of control.
''I think it is going to get excessive and not very well thought through,'' said Sawhill, a longtime adviser to Democrats on poverty issues.
There are many ideas being floated. Rector has proposed that Congress set aside funds and require every state to set up marriage-skills classes in high schools (Florida already does). Another initiative is aimed at using the Temporary Assistance bloc grant funds for community or faith-based groups to provide marriage mentoring to parents or pregnant women identified through the Medicaid program.
A more radical notion from Rector is for states to offer women at high risk of out-of-wedlock childbirth $5,000 if they get married, with $1,000 payouts coming in each of the next five years if the women remain married.
Horn, in his Brookings Review article, said Congress should ''force states'' to take marriage promotion more seriously by requiring each to adopt a plan to increase the number of two-parent households.
''Because marriage is personal and important, the last thing you want is government involvement,'' said Darcy Olson, a policy analyst at the libertarian Cato Institute, who opposes these initiatives.
Today's subcommittee hearing is expected to include testimony from Jerry Regier, a state official in Oklahoma, which is using $10 million in welfare money to try to cut the divorce rate by one-third over 10 years, and Mark Anderson, a state legislator in Arizona who sponsored marriage-education legislation. Both will describe the difficulty of crafting and implementing programs aimed at the inexact art of making marriages work.
Mary Leonard can be reached by e-mail at mleonard at globe.com.
This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 5/22/2001. © Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.