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March 1, 2002
Power Mad
Marriage Proposal.
Power Mad

The most substantial criticism raised against the Bush administration’s plan to divert $300 million of the welfare budget to “promote marriage” among the poor is that no one really knows exactly how the money will be spent. Wade Horn, who oversees the welfare program at the Department of Health and Human Services, says this shouldn’t matter: The money is for research into what will work, and “my central overriding concern is not marriage, it is the well-being of children.”

Oklahoma, one of the three states—along with Arizona and Michigan—that has already made matrimony a policy priority, has put much of its $10 million marriage budget toward a “public awareness campaign” that includes pep rallies led by two evangelical Christian “marriage ambassadors.” When pressed, Horn says he envisions state-funded marriage counseling and perhaps even “celebrity endorsements.” Steven Covey, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People czar and a supporter of the proposal, suggests that families develop “mission statements” that would include staying together. It all sounds vaguely familiar; it’s this decade’s answer to the war on drugs. Only this time it’s “Just Say Yes.”

But the most vocal protest against the marriage promotion proposal hasn’t been that it won’t be successful. Rather, many have complained that the plan turns welfare into an experiment in social engineering. This argument misses the point: Welfare has always been an experiment in social engineering, a mostly well-intentioned one, but a subjective, imprecise and risky experiment nonetheless. Whether you believe it was originally designed to assist people in moving out of poverty or to create an incentive for choosing not to depends on your point of view.

And the use of welfare to promote a certain kind of behavior is not an invention of some shadowy family-values cabal. The significantly named Personal Responsibility and Workforce Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996—framed in Congress by the Gingrich leadership but endorsed by President Bill Clinton—opened the door for thinking of welfare as an experiment designed to comfort the sensibilities of those giving the money away rather than meet the needs of those receiving it.

By those limited standards, the experiment of welfare reform has worked. Sensibilities have been comforted. By the more traditional yardstick—getting people out of poverty—welfare reform hasn’t done much better than the flawed programs it replaced. A study by the nonpartisan Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, released in February, found that welfare reform in Connecticut increased the percentage of individuals who found work in the last six years by only 5 percent compared to a control group who continued to receive public aid under pre-1996 regulations. A national study by the Department of Health and Human Services found control groups in 11 different states got off welfare at almost the same rate as those participating in “workfare” programs, and 75 percent of them found jobs. Indeed, about the only significant difference in how workfare participants fared compared to those in traditional welfare programs seems to be that many left the workfare programs poorer than when they began.

None of this should come as a surprise. Programs that aren’t really designed to help people usually don’t. And this is the strongest blow to the marriage promotion plan: That it isn’t about “the children”—or, for that matter, marriage—at all. If it were, Horn and his colleagues would not be pointing to the studies that demonstrate the benefits of growing up with two parents or the dangers of growing up with just one. Instead, they’d be looking at what keeps poor families apart in the first place. Surprise: It’s being poor.

In fact, research implies that the only people whose minds will be changed by the public campaigns Horn envisions are his supporters, who currently believe that without them, poor people wouldn’t want to get married. But they do. According to Marcia Carlson, a professor of social work and sociology at Columbia University, most welfare recipients, “even the unmarried poor ones, say, ‘Marriage is good for children, I want to get married.’ ”

The big difference between those who do get married and those that don’t is education and employment. “The more income you have,” Carlson says, “the more likely you are to get married.” Conversely, other studies have found that one of the biggest stresses on the poor couples who do get married is lack of income. All of this suggests that the money being put into promoting marriage would be much better spent if they simply gave it away.

The 1996 act turned poverty into a failure of “personal responsibility.” The Bush plan is simply a further ideological refinement, turning poverty into a moral failure as well as a personal financial one. For lawmakers today, the goal of welfare is no longer the elimination of poverty, but the elimination of feeling guilty about poverty.

Ana Marie Cox is the former editor of the dearly departed suck.com and has written for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mother Jones, Wired and Spin. Her new column on Washington politics will appear regularly in In These Times.


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