Professor Stephanie Coontz

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WOMENSENEWS)–Politicians in every state want to encourage parents on welfare to get married, but here in West Virginia, one of the poorest states, they have literally put their money where their mouths are.

Since federal welfare overhaul was adopted by state lawmakers in 1996, West Virginia has offered a monthly cash incentive to married couples who receive welfare checks. It’s the only state in the country to offer money as an inducement to matrimony, according to the National Governors Association.

West Virginia’s $1.2 million annual program aims to promote marriage and stable, two-parent families.

Advocates say the program appears to be successful, but national welfare experts say it’s too soon to tell whether any of the handful of state marriage incentive programs, including West Virginia’s cash incentive, are a success. Women’s advocates say cash incentives may coerce and co-opt low-income women into remaining in abusive relationships.

“I’ve never heard of any public opposition to, or criticism of, the program,” says Rita Dobrich, program manager for the state’s Office of Family Support. “I think most people are like one legislator I remember, when the marriage incentive was being discussed. He just said, ‘Give it to ’em.'”

But does the carrot of an extra $100 each month really convince welfare recipients to tie the knot? And if it does, could the lure of the cash be trapping women and children in potentially abusive relationships?

Sue Julian, a team leader with the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says she’s concerned the incentive acts as an “additional barrier” to women struggling to leave bad relationships.

Advocates Say Incentives Can Trap Women in Violent Marriages

“When financial stress and domestic violence coexist in the same relationship, an additional $100 per month can easily be used as leverage by batterers to keep women living in poverty committed to the marriage,” Julian says. “Safety and lethality issues are at stake.”

How effective is a cash marriage bonus? That’s hard to say, especially since West Virginia politicians didn’t demand much statistical evidence to ensure it was working. Even figures for the most basic yardstick of success–how many couples have been receiving the incentive since it began in 1996–are not available.

“We just weren’t tracking it at the beginning,” Dobrich says.

The only numbers available start in January 2001, when 1,615 couples were receiving the marriage incentive. That number reached 1,678 couples in April, and fell back to 1,633 in June. That’s a small percentage of the 14,000 welfare cases in West Virginia, most of them headed up by single mothers, who make up 70 percent to 80 percent of all welfare recipients in the state. With so little knowledge available, it is impossible to know whether the couples would marry regardless of the incentive, or if the incentive is a factor in the marriage continuing.

To get the $100 each month, the recipient couple must be married, live in the same household and both must be named on the monthly assistance check. If they divorce, or even separate, the bonus stops.

State Gives $100 Bonus, but No Marriage Education, Counseling

But while the state checks its caseloads each month to see who is still married and who isn’t, the incentive program doesn’t come with the type of education and counseling offered by the few other states with marriage incentive programs. Only Oklahoma and Arizona have actual programs, while Maryland and a couple of other states appear to be assembling incentive programs, according to the governors association.

Oklahoma’s Marriage Initiative, started by Gov. Frank Keating, is spending $10 million to provide marriage education for couples receiving welfare, in an effort to cut the state’s divorce rate by one-third by 2010.

Meanwhile, Arizona spends more than a million dollars annually to offer marriage skills courses to welfare recipients, most of them single mothers and a small percentage of couples. It has produced a “healthy marriage handbook” and created a state Commission on Marriage and Communication Skills.

Even when marriage education and counseling are offered to parents receiving benefits, the jury is still out on the incentive programs’ effectiveness.

The uncertainty over what’s working and what isn’t may be reflected in the governors association’s recent request to Congress and the Bush Administration. At their annual meeting this past weekend in Providence, R.I., governors urged no reductions in funding or flexibility for state welfare programs. Susan Golanka, a welfare expert with the National Governors Association, says it’s far too early to say that any marriage incentive programs are a success.

“A lot of these incentives are very new, and there’s been no real evaluation yet,” Golanka said in an interview. “We just don’t know yet whether they work.”

No Major Objections to Cash Bonus When West Virginia Passed Law

When West Virginia Works, the state’s version of the work-driven federal welfare law, was enacted in 1996, marriage incentive passed without serious debate. In fact, no one recalls who proposed offering cash to married welfare recipients.

What they do remember is that there was plenty of federal welfare money available–$550 million over five years–and it had to be spent, or it would be lost.

West Virginia Sen. Vic Sprouse“That was the best way to spend that money, to give it to the people who could use it the most,” says Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse, a conservative Republican. “It’s something that can help out in raising children and in helping create two-income families.”

So lawmakers approved a 10 percent bonus in cash assistance for married couples receiving Temporary Aid to Needy Families, or TANF, benefits. Then, in the election year of 2000, things changed.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources asked lawmakers to increase the marriage incentive to a flat $100 a month. Dobrich, from the state Office of Family Support, says one of the major reasons was that the average welfare case receives less than $300 a month and a 10 percent marriage bonus “didn’t seem like much of an incentive.” And round numbers simplified paperwork. That also meant that a single parent with two children would receive substantially less than a married couple with one child, although they would all be families of three.

Federal Welfare Funds Had to Be Spent or Lost: Ergo, $100 Bonus

But a major political factor was the drive to spend unspent federal welfare funds earmarked for the states.

As the state’s five-year welfare overhaul plan drew to a close, some officials became concerned about the amount of unspent federal welfare dollars designated for West Virginia. When Democratic Congressman Bob Wise successfully battled last fall to unseat Republican Cecil Underwood in the governor’s race, unspent federal funds became a campaign issue.

Sprouse, the senate minority leader, remembers it simply: “They were hammering the governor over the head.” The marriage incentive increase to $100 was approved, along with a variety of other programs designed to spend down federal welfare funds.

But the welfare spending spree has come back to haunt state officials. Spending for West Virginia Works is projected to be $209 million during the current budget year–almost double the state’s annual allotment from the federal government. And next year’s budget looks even worse.

State Now Seeks to Cut Welfare Spending; Bonus May Be a Target

Secretary Paul Nussbaum of the Department of Health and Human Resources has asked Gov. Wise to appoint a “crisis panel” to help cut welfare spending. Given the scant statistical evidence that it’s working, might the marriage incentive program get the ax?

Perhaps not. State lawmakers would have to vote to remove the program, since it’s written into state law. But Sprouse, for one, says he’d be willing to consider it. Although he likes the idea of the marriage incentive, he’s troubled by the lack of hard numbers to demonstrate effectiveness.

“We need to take a look at these incentives, every single one of them,” Sprouse says. “And if they’re not working, we need to get rid of them.”

Though the marriage incentive hasn’t created a public outcry, there are skeptics both inside and outside the state.

“I think it’s quite a cause for concern,” says Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington, and the national co-chair of the Council on American Families.

Cash Bonus May Co-opt Vulnerable Women With Scant Resources

“You’re targeting women who have the least resources to escape a bad relationship. They’re so vulnerable, so desperate, and it may be very tempting, if you offer them $100, to say ‘Boy, we really need the money,’ even if the guy is abusive.”

Coontz, the author of several books, including “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap,” also points out that children suffer in households where there is high conflict.

“Anything we do that increases conflict is bad for these kids,” she said in an interview. “On average, we know that people who are married fare better, but I don’t think offering cash is the way to help.”

Dr. Waldo Johnson of the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration agrees, saying government starts down the proverbial “slippery slope” when it rewards “one type of commitment over another.”

Johnson was an investigator for the national Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, which looked at children raised by unmarried parents. He notes that the marriage incentive goal of improving children’s lives by adding a second income to their household doesn’t always pan out.

“Many poor men are equally as poor as these unwed mothers, and they often have low skills and education that make it difficult for them to find work or advance,” Johnson said in an interview.

Critics: $100 a Month Doesn’t Offset Emotional, Physical Stress

But while they fear the effects of trying to promote marriages with cash, both Johnson and Coontz also question whether West Virginia’s bait is sufficient.

“The $100 could be the difference between somebody eating at the end of the month. I don’t mean to pooh-pooh it,” Johnson says. “But for a lot of people, is that enough to offset the emotional or even physical stress of being in a bad relationship? I’m not certain.”

Coontz says she’d rather see states “get rid of all disincentives” to marriage, through reworking tax laws and welfare restrictions that favor single-parent households. In an about-face, Wade Horn, President Bush’s nominee for assistant secretary of the federal Office of Family Support, said he no longer favored measures that put unmarried women and others at a disadvantage.

Johnson expects more states will look at West Virginia’s marriage incentive program after the second round of federal welfare reauthorization next year. He wonders if lawmakers will also consider the growth of nontraditional families.

“What do we do to help those for whom marriage no longer seems to be an option?” asks Johnson. “That becomes the real question.”

Dan LeRoy, a free-lance writer from Morgantown, W.Va., has covered West Virginia politics and welfare reform for the Charleston Daily Mail.