Elizabeth Bauchner

(WOMENSENEWS)–A major goal of the landmark 1996 welfare reauthorization was “to end dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage.”

Seven years later, it seems our government is more concerned about promoting marriage than helping needy parents prepare for and find jobs.

The Bush administration proposes to spendalmost $2 billion of scarce welfare funds over the next six years promoting marriage. Our total federal welfare budget is less than $17 billion per year, the same amount it was in 1996. In February, the House passed H.R. 4, a welfare reauthorization bill that diverts funds from basic economic supports such as job training and child care into experimental marriage-promotion programs. Currently, the bill is under consideration by the Senate.

Promoting healthy and stable marriages is not a bad idea as long as the programs don’t take money away from helping welfare recipients obtain college degrees, which are proven to help boost women and children out of poverty.

However, H.R. 4 is littered with ineffective public policies that won’t help the poorest among us. Marriage alone hardly ever gets women and children out of poverty. Education and job training do.

Social Experiment Instead of Proven Help

If passed, H.R. 4 will divert $100 million per year from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families budget as well as commit an additional $200 million per year in new funding to promote marriage. Additionally, states will be required to match $100 million per year in funding, which they could take out of their federal welfare budgets.

This money would be better spent on providing basic economic supports to enable recipients to pursue job training and education.

Studies show that a college education is the single biggest contributor to financial independence. “There is . . . no more well established link to economic well-being than educational attainment,” according to a report by Avis Jones-DeWeever of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C. Although a college education doesn’t guarantee a life free from poverty, mothers who possess a bachelor’s degree make up less than 2 percent of the welfare rolls.

Jones-DeWeever also cites research that shows that just one year of post-secondary education reduces poverty rates by half in households headed by women of color.

Acknowledging that not all women have the interest or ability to attend post-secondary schools, Jones-DeWeever recommends that such women be offered “other educational supports and training opportunities . . . that lead to the types of jobs that provide stable employment, livable wages and access to benefits.”

In order to do this, we need to forget diverting funds from federal welfare into marriage promotion programs and allow more welfare recipients access to education and job training.

Minnesota Plan Led to More Marriages

Interestingly, education and job training would do more than just help families out of poverty. The Minnesota Family Investment Program helped families work their way out of poverty through three routes: job training, earned-income disregards and child care subsidies. They then discovered that leading families out of poverty led to increased marriage rates.

The Minnesota plan was successful in helping parents prepare for and find work. The earned-income disregards meant they could keep more of their federal welfare benefits in addition to their wages, eliminating an important work deterrent.

The child care subsidies helped take the burden off of the families transitioning from welfare to work. Although the Minnesota plan wasn’t aiming to promote marriage, the marriage rates rose among welfare recipients, indicating that reducing economic stressors and meeting the basic needs of welfare recipients may lead to higher rates of marriage.

However, instead of addressing the basic needs of the poor, H.R. 4 would waste precious welfare dollars on experimental marriage-promotion programs, including programs that discriminate against single-parent families, preach biblical doctrine and appear to be for-profit businesses.

For example, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families recommends about 40 possible marriage-promotion programs for states to adopt.

Their recommendations include two state programs already in existence. West Virginia offers monthly cash bonuses to couples after they marry, while Oklahoma penalizes cohabitating couples by reducing the children’s welfare benefit if the couple doesn’t marry. These two programs hurt the children of single-parent households simply because their mothers may be unable or unwilling to marry.

Recommended Programs Tied to Profit Motive

What’s worse, many of the programs recommended by the Administration for Children and Families appear to be for-profit businesses that advocate against no-fault divorce and promise to “cure” marriage problems. Several of the programs teach strict biblical interpretations of marital conflicts. The Marriage Matters initiative of the Iowa Family Policy Center, for instance, claims to “help engaged couples prepare for marriage by instructing them in biblical roles.” Is this the kind of marriage promotion we want to spend our tax dollars on?

If H.R. 4 passes, needy parents are not going to get the kinds of help they need to escape poverty. We will waste taxpayer money on programs that overlook what poor people really need: jobs that pay.

The surest way to a good job is through education and job training, and the surest way to keep the job is to have good child care and healthcare. If we focus on these issues first, marriage is more likely to occur.

Elizabeth Bauchner lives in Ithaca, N.Y., and writes a weekly column, “Mothering Matters,” in The Ithaca Journal.

For more information:

Institute for Women’s Policy Research:

Welfare Information Network