Marry or Burn

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

Carol Arthur, the executive director of the Minneapolis-based Domestic Abuse Project, points out that statistically, as many as 60 percent of people on welfare experience some form of domestic violence.

"Poverty is one of the reasons why women go back to their abusers, because they can't afford safe, decent housing for themselves and their children," says Arthur. "Depending on how this all gets enacted, you put battered women in a position where they have to choose between a place to live for them and their children or the ability to leave their abusers."

Plus, she adds, it's not necessarily true that two incomes will be sufficient to provide a family a decent living. "Twelve percent of full-time working parents in Minnesota earn too little to bring their families above the poverty level," she says. "The jobs that have been created in Minnesota are low-wage jobs. They're not going to bring anyone out of poverty."

In 1994, Minnesota took some of its federal welfare dollars and put them toward an experiment. The state continued to pay traditional welfare benefits to some people. Others were enrolled in a program designed to help them enter the workforce. Participants in the pilot program, called the Minnesota Family Investment Program, received childcare subsidies, public health care, and educational assistance, and were given income subsidies while they worked or went to school. The idea was to make it possible for people not just to get jobs but to keep them--and hopefully until they had enough education or experience to bring in wages that would allow them to support their families on their own.

The program cost $1,900 to $3,800 more per year per participant, but it proved successful enough that in 1998 it was implemented statewide. In 2000, the state hired MDRC, a private, nonprofit organization previously known as the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, to study the program's outcomes. Evaluators concluded that MFIP had met two of its three goals, increasing employment and decreasing poverty; results were mixed for the third goal, reducing dependency.

Interestingly, the independent researchers who evaluated the effort found that it had other benefits as well. "MFIP's effects on families' economic circumstances led to a series of important changes in family life and improvements in child well-being," MDRC's report stated. "A dramatic decline in domestic abuse, a modest increase in marriage rates, and, for children, better performance in school and fewer behavioral problems."

The evaluation found that domestic abuse of mothers receiving state aid decreased 18 percent, from nearly 60 percent to 42 percent, and marriage rates increased from 7 percent to nearly 11 percent. A follow-up evaluation released last fall found that seven years later, MFIP reduced divorce by 25 percent, and by more than 75 percent among married African American couples.

"The positive effects on seemingly intractable problems like domestic abuse make more sense if you consider that the program didn't just give families more income," the leader of the 2000 evaluation said at the time. "The extra income from the incentives was available only if you worked; the program was presented as a very positive opportunity; and the program's staff encouraged people to use that opportunity to move ahead. All of this may have helped people change their lives in multiple ways."

Last year, decrying the size of the state's welfare system, Gov. Tim Pawlenty slashed the program's budget. Overnight, tens of thousands of Minnesota's working poor lost their childcare and health care benefits. Advocates for low-income families say they are beginning to collect evidence that more families are going back on welfare in the wake of the cuts.

"This really is an economic question," says Karen Kingsley, director of the Affirmative Options Coalition, a group of Minnesota organizations working on state and federal public policy issues affecting low-income Minnesotans. "The kinds of jobs that this economy is creating are lower-wage jobs that do not provide enough income for people to meet their basic needs without assistance with childcare and health care. We've made decisions in the past to help people with health care and childcare and we've seen that that really helps people to move out of poverty and to become self-sufficient.

"Providing people with incentives to work and financial supports that help them survive in this economy clearly does work, and works for marriage," she continues. "So why not go for what you know works?"

 

The notion that marriage is the government's business is anything but new. "In the beginning of the United States, the founders had a political theory of marriage," writes Nancy Cott in Public Vows: A History of Marriage and the Nation. "As an intentional and harmonious juncture of individuals for mutual protection, economic advantage, and common interest, the marriage bond resembled the social contract that produced government. As a freely chosen structure of authority and obligation, it was an irresistible model."

Because it compelled monogamy and mutual responsibility, marriage was thought to be the bedrock of a citizenry that possessed the necessary moral capacity to create a great nation, writes Cott, a professor of history and American studies at Yale. It also formalized the ways in which wealth and property were held and passed from one generation to another.

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