Fueling the Flames
Labor and greens must join forces to stop Bushs assault on the planet.
More African-Americans are running for governor than ever before.
Rigged elections are widespread throughout Africa, and not just in Zimbabwe.
A New Detente?
The Bush administration cozies up to China.
No evidence, but a Missouri inmate is facing execution.
Britain passes measures to elect more women.
Seeds of Destruction
Genetic contamination raises stakes on GMOs.
Pennsylvania debates are calculated to exclude Greens.
HMOs aim to stop even modest reform in its tracks.
BOOKS: Israel, the occupation and "apartheid."
Disasters in Waiting
BOOKS: Ahmed Rashid on more impending Jihad.
Play It Again, Sam
MUSIC: How multiple reissues keep record labels flush.
FILM: The moral dilemmas of Storytelling.
An interview with ®mark's Frank Guerrero.
March 1, 2002
he most substantial criticism raised against the Bush administrations
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 shouldnt 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 statesalong with Arizona and Michiganthat
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; its this decades answer to the war
on drugs. Only this time its Just Say Yes.
But the most vocal protest against the marriage promotion proposal hasnt
been that it wont 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
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 1996framed in Congress
by the Gingrich leadership but endorsed by President Bill Clintonopened
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
By those limited standards, the experiment of welfare reform has worked. Sensibilities
have been comforted. By the more traditional yardstickgetting people out
of povertywelfare reform hasnt 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
None of this should come as a surprise. Programs that arent really designed
to help people usually dont. And this is the strongest blow to the marriage
promotion plan: That it isnt about the childrenor, for
that matter, marriageat 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, theyd
be looking at what keeps poor families apart in the first place. Surprise: Its
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 wouldnt 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 dont
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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