Commentary

Is the President’s Marriage Proposal DOA?

By Kimble F. Ainslie, Ph.D.
This article was first published on FOXNews.com, March 26, 2002.

President Bush introduced his marriage proposal for welfare mothers at the end of February, but by early March the administration was already backtracking on the initiative. It now looks like the proposal had a shelf life of about two weeks.

Controversial at best, the administration quickly got caught up in its own tangled web for introducing new policies. First, it introduced the marriage proposal as a declaratory measure — it doesn’t have much substance and there has been little explanation offered about why more marriages would benefit welfare recipients. Second, the initiative itself is a patchwork of poorly thought out and voluntary components begging the states to come on board. Finally, the proposal is a low impact fiscal effort, which makes marriage supporters wonder why the administration even bothered with the initiative.

When advocates of single motherhood — a group in ample supply in Washington — started screaming about how the initiative encouraged welfare mothers to stay in abusive marriages, the backpedaling by Tommy Thompson, secretary for Health and Human Services, and his senior officials went into high gear.

On the defensive, Thompson promised the House Ways and Means Committee on March 12 that the initiative would not involve “forced marriages.” Two days later, another official promised welfare activists at a Washington, D.C. Urban Institute gathering that fighting domestic violence was really part of the administration’s plan.

Meanwhile members of the House Subcommittee on Human Resources and its parent committee on Ways and Means — currently taking the lead on welfare reform reauthorization — have demonstrated no enthusiasm for the marriage proposal.

Even if the marriage proposal suffered its fate as a result of administration fumbling and its deference to the single motherhood lobby, there were better reasons for its demise: It was a bad idea and a bad design.

The numbers show that about half of single mothers on welfare are actually cohabitating with the fathers of their children — the homes are not fatherless, as conservative critics claimed. Another third of these welfare mothers sustain close “visiting relationships” with the fathers of their children, and only about 9 percent of the tally are “dead-beat dads” or are incarcerated, and offer no parental support.

Not only are many fathers in the home but they are making significant contributions to family incomes. So there appears to be an absence of research-support for the idea that single mothers need to marry for income reasons.

There may be a host of good reasons for marriages to be promoted. Certainly a two-parent family contributes mightily to the emotional health of children; that is, of course, when the parents are not regularly fighting with each other, or engaging in drug, alcohol and child sexual abuse.

The administration has proposed a $300 million program, $200 million of which is dependent on the good graces and voluntary efforts of the states. As Secretary Thompson has described it, $100 million will be taken away from the failing “illegitimacy bonus” — currently going to five top performing states — and reallocated to a “family formation” initiative. “Family formation” is intended to encourage married couples to combat temptations that lead to ruin such as gambling and other addictions. Others programs will settle their marriage differences through counseling, and still others contemplated will be pre-marriage programs.

The administration also wants to gut the current “high performance bonus” program also going to selected states, and transfer half of this funding, about $100 million, to states volunteering to match federal funds in programs to “promote healthy marriages and reduce out-of-wedlock births.” This initiative would allow for extensive research and experimentation at the state level to determine what works and what doesn’t on the matter of sustaining healthy marriages. But as indicated, nothing in the proposal compels the states to go forward.

Perhaps the worst aspect of the president’s proposal is its promotion of marriage “training” as a panacea for marriage breakups and newly married couples. We have learned elsewhere that training seminars simply have no long-term impact. For example, pregnancy prevention programs, the very policy field from which the president is drawing prospective marriage promotion funding, has experienced a string of failures in preventing teenage pregnancies to any appreciable extent. Similarly, training programs for the workplace have also by and large failed to realize expected levels of job attainment and retention. There is no reason to expect that “training days” are going to solve the marriage break-up problem for welfare mothers.

Kimble F. Ainslie is an entitlements policy analyst in the health and welfare studies department of the Cato Institute.