Prof. Gwendolyn Mink

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Women’s advocates and activists are preparing for heated Congressional debate on reauthorization of the 1996 welfare act that was described as a reform. One overarching concern is that the controversial legislation promotes marriage with carrot and stick and, they say, punishes poor women for choosing or being left to rear children on their own.

“It’s a patriarchal sexist mentality to say that the cure for a poor mother’s poverty is a father’s income,” says Gwendolyn Mink, a professor of political science at the University of California at Santa Cruz and author of a 1998 book on welfare reform, “Welfare’s End.” Mink cited continuing efforts to discourage non-marital births among women on welfare and the institution of abstinence and fatherhood programs as evidence that the government is promoting marriage for poor women.

“It’s making women dependent on men instead of doing other things that help women support their families.”

The issue isn’t new, but the emphasis is. One of the primary goals of the landmark 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act which repealed the 60-year-old American federal assistance to destitute single parents, usually called welfare, was to reduce the numbers of children born to unmarried mothers.

The new system attempts to accomplish this by capping welfare benefits in order to discourage families from having more children while receiving public assistance, awarding extra funding to the five states that managed to most dramatically cut the number of non-marital births while keeping the number of abortions down, and promoting abstinence for poor women on welfare.

Last week, President Bush nominated Wade F. Horn, a clinical child psychologist and head of the National Fatherhood Initiative, as assistant secretary for family support in the Department of Health and Human Services. Horn, a former U.S. Commissioner for Children, Youth and Families, is expected to promote a pro-marriage and pro-fatherhood agenda, especially in welfare.

Welfare Law Calls Marriage Essential for Children’s Well-Being

The 1996 welfare law begins:

“The Congress makes the following findings:

  1. Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.
  2. Marriage is an essential institution of a successful society that promotes the interests of its children.
  3. Promotion of responsible fatherhood and motherhood is integral to successful child rearing and the well-being of children.”

Social welfare experts cite compelling evidence that children in two-parent families do better financially and emotionally than children reared in single-parent homes. In the findings section in the 1996 welfare law, Congress found that children who were born to unmarried parents were more likely to be born at a low or moderately low birth weight, more likely to experience low verbal cognitive attainment and more likely to experience child abuse and neglect than those in two-parent homes.

Congress also found that children born to single parents were much less likely to have a successful marriage themselves and were three times more likely to be on welfare as adults.

Some experts, including political scientist Gwendolyn Mink, argue with these sweeping generalities.

“If you control for income, those studies are far less decisive,” says Mink.

It’s a chicken-and-egg argument that shows little sign of resolution, but, nevertheless, the statements in the findings section have been widely accepted as fact.

Moreover, now that the welfare rolls have been reduced by about 50 percent, proponents of the 1996 legislation say it’s time to take on the structure of the American family itself.

“This is by no means trying to force marriage on anyone, especially where there’s an abusive relationship. It’s more an effort to see what is possible for a relationship, because the data is so clear that kids with two parents do better than kids with one,” says Trent Duffy, a spokesperson for the human resources subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee that soon will be taking up the issue of what changes should be made to the 1996 law before it is reauthorized next year.

Hearings This Spring to Promote Marriage, Fatherhood for Families on Welfare

Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif. and chair of the subcommittee, recently said publicly that he’d like to see a return to two-parent families in poor communities. Hearings will begin this spring on how to continue promoting marriage and responsible fatherhood for poor families in the welfare system, said Duffy.

Some of the possible policy changes, he said, would require states to fund pro-marriage programs, asking welfare caseworkers to discuss marriage with pregnant clients, teaching about marriage in public schools and experimenting to see what works to increase the numbers of marriages between poor men and women with children.

Though feminist scholars who have criticized the 1996 welfare law as harmful to currently poor women agree that existing relationships should be supported by the system, they worry that writing new laws to promote marriage may push women who don’t want to be married into dysfunctional unions and reallocate resources better spent on helping single mothers obtain child care and job training.

In the old days, they say, the term shotgun marriage referred to the stereotypical angry father of a young pregnant woman pointing a gun at a reluctant bridegroom. Today, they say, the constriction of welfare benefits could be a virtual economic shotgun being pointed at women on welfare, pressuring them into marrying for revenue rather than relationships.

Women often have excellent reasons for not wanting to marry their former or current sex partners: The partners may not be particularly good wage earners and many may be abusive, violent or otherwise unfit parents. On the other hand, these pro-marriage initiatives assume that the currently poor single mothers deliberately choose to remain single, rather than the other scenario, that the fathers have abandoned the mother and child. (Welfare law requires the government to pursue errant absentee parents for support payments.) Other scholars assert that much more research is required to know how currently poor families are constructed–non-married mothers’ relationships with the fathers of their children are most likely to best be described as being along a continuum of love and support to abuse and abandonment.

The bottom line for many women’s advocates is that the best way to ensure that children are not poor is to provide for financially strong mothers, and if the fathers are helpful, all the better.

Single Mothers May Not Be the Problem

Tiffany Miller, a member of the Single Moms Summit, a New York City-based coalition, says the marriage proposal is an attempt to avoid dealing with the deeply rooted causes of poverty. “Rather than address the problem, the government is reverting to trying to enforce a stereotype on women,” she said.

And they worry that policies tilted toward fatherhood send the message that there’s something wrong with single mothers.

“No one’s against fathers being in the home,” said Mimi Abramovitz, a professor at the Hunter College School of Social Work in New York and author of “Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy From Colonial Times to the Present,” and “Under Attack, Fighting Back: Women and Welfare in the United States.”

“But if fathers are not there, the right wing thinks these homes are defective,” she said.

At a Feb. 20 forum on welfare reform at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., a panel previewed the prominent role that marriage promotion is likely to play during the reauthorization.

Many Have Serious Reservations About One-Answer-Fits-All

“We know that a two-parent family is the best for raising children and keeping them out of poverty,” said Fred Barnes, editor of the influential Weekly Standard, and one of the panelists. Barnes said the failure of welfare reform has been “its failure to promote marriage and reduce out-of-wedlock births.”

Panelist Ron Haskins, a Brookings fellow who had a major hand in drafting the reform legislation for Republicans, told the audience he’s disappointed that the states, which were given more autonomy under the 1996 legislation, haven’t done more to encourage poor couples with children to marry. “The values of the American people are that marriage is to be valued,” he said.

For progressives and liberals who have reservations about what are widely believed to be the positive results of the 1996 welfare law and question whether the law has helped poor women and their children, the issue raises difficult questions about the goals of helping children under the current welfare law and the rights of women.

“The government should support as opposed to promote marriage,” says Wendell Primus, the director of income security at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. “If we really believe in two-parent families, we should serve them in our welfare system,” he adds. States that aggressively enforce child support laws go a long way toward reducing the number of non-marital births, he said.

Robert Kuttner, founder and co-editor of the American Prospect and Brooking Institution panelist, said at the forum that if the government wants to help “17-year-old boys who are fathering children out-of-wedlock,” it should “start with them when they’re two years old, get them into Head Start and don’t force their mothers to abandon them to the streets and maybe … against all odds, if you work with them when they’re young, you’ll make them into marriageable young men.”

Some Fear Pro-Marriage Government Is Legislating Morality

The promoters of the pro-marriage programs say that it’s worth trying to reduce the number of children who are brought up without two involved parents.

“This is the second tier of welfare reform,” says Duffy, spokesperson of the House Ways and Means Committee. “It’s helping children lead better lives. It’s new thinking and it scares some people because they think it is government legislating morality.”

Some women say that’s exactly what it is. “This is a coercive act by the government,” says Mink. She adds that laws that promote heterosexual marriage discriminate against poor lesbian and gay parents.

Encouraging women to get married in order to achieve economic security may put them in the unstable position of counting on men who may not always be there, women’s advocates say.

“Women have traditionally had three sources of support,” quips Abramovitz. “Men, marriage or the market. None of them is too reliable right now.”

And for some observers, the motivation behind efforts to promote marriage for poor women is power rather than reform. “The ideological underpinning of this is that to allow women to raise children on their own is a real threat to the patriarchy,” says Abramovitz. “I always joke that now we know why welfare benefits are so low–women raising children on their own are threatening to men.”

Sarah Stewart Taylor is a free-lance writer covering Washington, D.C., and New England.