Marry or Burn

Marc Phares

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.

''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.

''Use the bully pulpit on key issues, especially marriage,'' Rector urged. ''Use...minority groups to reinforce the message. Ideal examples are poor black parents...and former welfare mothers.''

Bush had already taken at least one step in Rector's direction with the appointment of Dr. Wade F. Horn, a prominent marriage activist, as his welfare czar. The founder of a fatherhood-promotion organization, Horn once advocated giving married couples first dibs on public housing. As assistant secretary of health and human services for children and families, he would be intimately involved in crafting the ongoing welfare reform.

In addition to authoring a host of position papers justifying government's entry into "family formation," Wade has been busy trying to counter concerns that the administration seriously means to replace welfare with marriage promotion--blueprint notwithstanding. "Marriage is not the administration's anti-poverty program," he recently told the New York Times. "It's an issue of addition, not subtraction. This will add options and opportunities, not take away from them."

It's selective addition, though. For starters, these services will be eligible to heterosexual couples only. Plus, most of the organizations that jumped on the bandwagon in the primarily western states where officials have been testing marriage promotion in the last two years are churches and other "faith-based organizations." And with a few notable exceptions, that's likely to be the case in most of the country when the money's made available.

Wade's contention that spending on marriage isn't subtraction is false. States that want to start the programs are required to match the federal dollars, but are allowed to use general federal welfare funds to do so. The likely consequence is that states will spend even less on direct assistance to their poorest families.

"That $300 million in marriage money could merely whet appetites for a faith-based feeding frenzy," the Village Voice predicted last year. "The Bush welfare plan proposes 'super waivers' to allow states to spend monies meant for childcare and job training with unprecedented flexibility. It's a macro version of a quiet federal initiative uncovered in late March, in which a few states were to be encouraged to seek waivers on child support rules and spend that money on marriage promotion."


It's true that children with married parents are generally better off. But this doesn't mean that convincing parents to get married will automatically improve their fortunes, economic or psychological. Research suggests it's the other way around: Parents with adequate incomes are more likely to marry, and to stay married.

One-third of households headed by single mothers lived in poverty in 2000, as opposed to 6 percent of families headed by married couples, according to census figures. Ninety percent of adult welfare recipients are women, and single mothers are far and away the segment of the population that's most vulnerable to poverty.

"Women who become single mothers are especially likely to have inadequate wages, both because of pre-existing disadvantages such as low educational attainment and work experience and because the shortage of publicly subsidized childcare makes it difficult for them to work full time," writes sociologist Stephanie Coontz, who notes that only 1.2 percent of children of working single mothers with a college degree lived in poverty. "Consider the situation of a single mother with two children working full time, year round at the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, for an income of $10,712. The high cost of childcare helps explain why the economic position of single parents has improved little in recent years despite significant increases in their hours of market work."

It's important to note that in making that computation, Coontz is using national averages. Childcare in the Twin Cities for less than $6,000 a year is virtually unheard of; care at a licensed center easily tops $10,000. Estimates are that marriage would increase a single mom's household income by $10,000-$17,000 a year--not nearly enough to close the gap. Without state-subsidized daycare, her hypothetical mother couldn't afford to work at all, married or not.

The argument that marriage can lift a woman and her children out of poverty also assumes that she has decent marital prospects. Current research shows that half of all unmarried new parents are living together when their babies are born and hope to marry at some point. Often, however, the economic prospects of the father-to-be are no better than the mother's.  

"Precisely because marriage offers economic advantages, individuals tend to seek potential spouses who have good earnings potential and to avoid marriage when they do not feel they or their potential mates can comfortably support a family," Coontz writes. "Ethnographic research shows that low-income women see economic stability on the part of a prospective partner as a necessary precondition for marriage. Not surprisingly, men increasingly use the same calculus. Rather than looking for someone they can 'rescue' from poverty, employed men are much more likely to marry women who themselves have good employment prospects."

According to Princeton University's Center for Research on Child Well-Being, unmarried fathers are twice as likely as married ones to have a physical or psychological problem that prohibits steady employment, and several times more likely to have a drug or alcohol problem. Meanwhile, getting a stepfather is sometimes worse for the kids than continuing to live with a stable single mother.

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.

Of course, most of the legal rights accrued to husbands, who virtually owned their wives and children. This hierarchy was thought to be fair because women were believed to enter into the bargain voluntarily and because men were supposed to support their families: "If a husband provided passably for his dependents, he fulfilled the most important requirement of his manhood in marriage, as much as a wife showed her femininity by giving evidence of obedient service."

As people without rights, slaves were not allowed to marry. Common-law marriages reflect the fact that, in addition to the parties' mutual consent, public recognition of a couple's bond defined their marriage.

Even in revolutionary times, however, there was room for divorce when one or the other spouse failed to fulfill their role. And by 1800, it was possible to divorce in almost every state in the union; several had formally spelled out the circumstances in which a marriage could be dissolved.

By the 1970s, most Americans had access to the no-fault divorce, where a marriage could be ended simply because the partners were unhappy. Divorce rates rose sharply, even as marriage rates fell. The number of households headed by unmarried couples multiplied 10 times between 1960 and 1998, and the number of unmarried adults rose. During the same time period, the divorce rate skyrocketed. Half of all marriages now end in divorce.

This trend had disturbed religious conservatives for decades. But by the mid-'90s, research confirming that children fared best in stable two-parent families had sparked a number of family social scientists, psychologists, and researchers to change their views and begin to complain that they'd wrongly put self-actualization before family unity. Liberal and conservative marriage proponents began talking about how to teach couples relationship skills, and the so-called marriage movement was born.

It's anything but homogeneous, though. "Some single parents do a good job, some two-parent families do a bad job," cautions Theodora Ooms, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, and one of the marriage movement's leading liberals. "One third of divorced parents had high-conflict marriages, and in those cases the children seemed better off. But in the about two-thirds of divorces that were not high conflict, the parents just drifted apart. In those cases, the kids seemed to be bewildered, and not relieved, when their parents divorced." It's those couples, she and other marriage movement leaders say, who should be encouraged to stick together and to make their marriages better.

Ooms is among the marriage proponents who have taken an interest in Minnesota's successes with MFIP and urge the adoption of a Minnesota-like model. "In my organization we've been working on an initiative we've been calling marriage plus," says Ooms. "We're reasonably optimistic about this marriage counseling business, but we think it's not enough."

It's on this point that the marriage movement seems most likely to fracture. Indeed, the right is already beginning to kvetch about the possible co-optation of its brainchild.

"Regrettably, efforts have emerged to undermine the president's healthy marriage initiative by substituting an alternative dubbed 'marriage plus,'" Rector and his colleagues complained in a recent Heritage Foundation background paper. "While proponents of marriage plus pay lip service to the importance of promoting marriage, this project is in fact intended to cripple the president's initiative by siphoning off limited marriage funds into traditional government activities that have little or nothing to do with marriage. Such ancillary 'marriage plus' activities include job training, child support collections, pregnancy prevention and contraceptive promotion, feel-good programs for absent fathers, and traditional welfare benefits to 'fight poverty.'"  


In the early '90s, former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson experimented with paying teen mothers on welfare an extra $80 a month if they married. However, Thompson declined to evaluate "Bridefare," as the program was dubbed, leaving it unclear whether it amounted to anything more than an ideological gesture.

More recently, as part of Bush's pilot program, West Virginia began paying an extra $100 a month to welfare recipients who marry. The first year the cash bonuses were available, only around 1,600 couples applied. In Colorado lawmakers proposed paying welfare recipients a one-time "bonus or dowry" of $500 to $1,000. The bill failed to clear the state senate.

Although a number of state governments began talking to religious groups about ways to promote marriage, it's unclear how well the projects have worked. Arizona spent $1.6 million on the initiative in 2000, most of it doled out to churches and other groups teaching relationship skills. The state also handed out vouchers to allow low-income couples to attend the classes, and spent $75,000 on the printing of a marriage handbook. Oklahoma, which has one of the highest divorce rates in the nation, spent $10 million that year on activities ranging from encouraging religious leaders to offer marriage preparation classes to improving the collection of data regarding Oklahomans' attitudes about marriage.

In addition, the marriage movement's liberals are concerned that the marriage education programs that have turned out to be effective to date won't be much help. The curricula developed by Smart Marriages and other groups providing marriage-enhancement classes and workshops are aimed primarily at middle-class couples and may not work with so-called fragile families. It's hard to resolve disagreements about money when you don't have any. (Nonetheless, Smart Marriages' website includes links to information about government grants members may wish to apply for.)

Even cultural conservatives concede that there's little proof that the programs work. "State and local-level marriage initiatives seem overall to be running their course, without yielding hard proof of success, and without new initiatives emerging to replace them," David Blankenhorn wrote last year in the Center for the American Experiment's American Experiment Quarterly. "Little credible evidence exists that current grassroots marriage initiatives are achieving success in improving the quality and stability of marriage, or reducing unwed childbearing and unnecessary divorce."

Worse, he laments, "the Bush administration's current marriage initiative...while serving as the major 'public policy face' of the marriage movement, is quite modest in its scope, relevant only to a tiny fraction of the American adult population and not currently able to win broad political support in Congress. Even were it to become law, it would be highly unlikely to make more than a small dent in the problem of non-marriage in the inner city."

A recent New York Times editorial was more succinct. Bush's plan, the paper declared, is a "very expensive version of spitting into the wind."

Contrarily, some of Bush's most ardent right-wing backers are grumbling that the initiative is far too tentative. In the wake of the decision two weeks ago by the Massachusetts state Supreme Court that gays and lesbians have a right to marry, the religious right is hounding Bush to crusade for a constitutional amendment declaring marriage a union between one man and one woman.

Nonetheless, the White House's marriage initiative appears poised to pass both the U.S House and Senate when welfare reform comes up for renewal next month. In fact, the House version of the bill would put an extra $100,000 toward the program.

White House aides say Bush will visit marriage-promotion programs in poor neighborhoods in coming months. "The president loves to do that sort of thing in the inner city with black churches," one told the New York Times. "And he's very good at it."

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