Marry or Burn

The White House's new anti-poverty program: Shotgun weddings

Two years ago, George Bush stood in a Catholic church in blighted southeast Washington, D.C., and outlined his vision of the next stage of welfare reform. His remarks were characteristically rambling, and it took a while for the president to communicate the more practical details of this piece of compassionate conservatism to the "social entrepreneurs" occupying the pews at St. Luke's.

"I had the privilege and honor of meeting with some neighborhood healers here a little earlier, soldiers in the armies of compassion, people whose lives were at one time dark and hopeless, who now see a bright and clear future because of faith, and are willing to share that future with others," Bush said. "It is a--it was a powerful meeting for me. I sometimes get encapsulated in a bubble. It's important for me to--as often as I can to hear the stories of--of America."

Sufficiently warmed up, Bush went on to compare himself to Hubert Humphrey. "I believe Americans in need are not problems," he insisted. "They are our neighbors. They're not strangers; they are citizens of our country." As a humanitarian, he realized that the folks whose safety net he was eliminating would still need some help. And to that end he proposed spending tax dollars to promote the institution of marriage.

Marc Phares

''Across America, no doubt about it, single mothers do heroic work. They have the toughest job in our country," he told his audience. "In many cases, their lives and their children's lives would be better if their fathers had lived up to their responsibilities.'' The crowd, peppered with religious activists who were already involved in bringing the gospel of marriage to the inner city, applauded on cue.

Bush got his marriage promotion money, and in the intervening two years, several states have experimented with programs to foster "healthy marriages" among the poor. The tactics have ranged from paying higher welfare benefits to those who marry to using "peer counselors" to mentor inner-city newlyweds. Most of the groups lined up to spread the good word, not surprisingly, have been the faith-based organizations Bush has hoped will pick up government's slack.

Even the staunchest proponents of the marriage promotion policy admit that there's no evidence that the experiments have created very many new families, much less stable ones. Nonetheless, when the 1996 welfare reform act comes up for renewal next month, it will contain $1.5 billion to be spent on pre-marital counseling, "marriage enrichment education," and pro-marriage ad campaigns. With access to marriage skills, the thinking goes, poor people will commingle, prosper, and produce children who won't become a burden on the state.

As an election-year policy initiative, George Bush's plan to foster "healthy marriages" among the poor is sheer genius. Even as he eliminates the last shreds of the nation's social safety net, Bush gets to showcase his compassionate conservatism. He gets to do something to promote old-fashioned heterosexual unions without having to jump all the way in to the gay-marriage debate. And, thanks to the burgeoning Marriage Movement, he's created a program that enjoys the support of a wide swath of the liberal establishment.

Too bad we're talking about money that otherwise might actually help families make ends meet.


The ponderous text of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 opens with the declaration that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society." Bill Clinton's landmark welfare reform then promised "to end dependence by promoting marriage." It was a safe bone for Clinton to toss to Congress's archconservatives. Dwarfed by the scope of the bill's radical changes, this bit of verbiage flew under the public's radar screen.

No sooner had George Bush moved into the White House, though, than the pro-marriage component of the act drifted back to the fore of the political agenda. The timing couldn't have been more propitious. Since the mid-'90s, there had been a growing consensus among social scientists on both sides of the political aisle that children fared best when raised by their married, biological parents. There were caveats aplenty, but the gist of the research was enough to propel government into the marriage business.

And, their purported distaste for '60s-style social engineering notwithstanding, the right wing of the Republican Party (led by the far-right Heritage Foundation and the Minnesota-based Center for the American Experiment) had wanted to be in the marriage business for some time. In the early days of the Bush administration, the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector produced an eight-point blueprint for making marriage promotion the centerpiece of ongoing welfare reform. "The sole reason that welfare exists is the collapse of marriage," he declared.

The blueprint called on Bush to divert $1 billion a year toward the effort. ''Few politicians will show open hostility to the idea of strengthening marriage," Rector predicted. "It should not be difficult to publicly co-opt prominent members of both parties.''

Rector proposed the creation of three new federal divisions, each named the Office to Strengthen Marriage, within the White House, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "All of the new offices to promote marriage should be heavily staffed by political appointees committed to the issue of preserving marriage in American society," his policy primer advised, adding that the best appointees would be people with expertise in promoting traditional marriages.

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