In the coming year the federal government will unfurl a $500 million grant program with the sole purpose of encouraging low-income people to get hitched. The idea is that advertising, counseling, and mentoring by real, live married couples will increase the marriage rate in "at-risk" communities — leading to increased prosperity.
Conservatives have long argued that pushing marriage is just smart social policy. After all, studies have shown that married people tend to have more stable, financially secure lives that are more conducive to child rearing. Though the jury is still out on exactly how this correlation works (it’s possible that financially secure people are simply that much more likely to wed, rather than the other way around), President George W. Bush has been championing marriage since at least 2001.
His plan to promote the institution among the poor immediately generated opposition from feminists, domestic violence activists, libertarians, and advocates for the poor. And Congress proved unwilling to find the money — until this month.
Buried in the federal budget reconciliation bill approved Feb. 1 was language that directs up to $150 million a year through 2010 to programs meant to encourage marriage and "responsible fatherhood." Each year up to $50 million will go to "father-oriented" grants; the rest will go to promoting wedlock.
Though the funding got almost no press coverage, skepticism remains high among advocates for women and the poor. And it’s fed by a seemingly inconsistent provision in the bill, one that will make it so that two-parent families on welfare are less likely to get cash assistance — just because they’re married.
The first and probably most obvious complaint about marriage promotion is that the state should not be involved in people’s personal decisions about if, when, and whom to marry. For some, the emphasis on traditional, heterosexual unions also smacks of religious and moral fundamentalism.
There’s also the fact that a marriage — no matter how loving, satisfying, or good for the kids — doesn’t directly help someone’s economic standing. Some advocates for the poor would prefer to see money invested directly in services, job training, or cash grants.
Plus, some marriages just aren’t loving or satisfying or good for the kids. Studies have shown that roughly 65 percent of women who are receiving welfare have been battered during the past three years. Pushing victims of domestic violence into unions could have tragic consequences, activists say.
But the most basic criticism of this approach — and one that’s particularly common among women who are familiar with the welfare system — is that having a man around doesn’t necessarily improve a woman’s economic status, no matter how much more men tend to be paid.
Albany resident Renita Pitts, who has five kids and was married for close to 20 years, told us that having a husband can often feel like "having another child — another grown child. At least the little ones mind."
Pitts says that, except for a few years when she was working, she and her ex-husband spent most of their marriage on welfare and using drugs. On occasion, he also beat her.
"The minute my husband left, I was able to get off drugs," she said. "My whole life just opened up. I started going to school full time; I became a citizen in my community. It seemed like my life improved financially, emotionally, and physically."
Pitts is now getting a Bachelor of Arts from UC Berkeley, where she also hopes to complete a PhD in African American Studies. In her free time she works with the Women of Color Resource Center because she wants to show other women that even when it doesn’t seem like it, they have options.
Pitts is worried about marriage-promotion policies, which she described as "another way or form to control low-income women’s bodies." If the government wanted to help women find stability, she said, they would focus on education, health care, and job training. Saying the bill is "contradictory in so many ways," Pitts pointed out the inherent discrimination against gays and lesbians and the incongruence with welfare laws that privilege single-parent families.
As the director of Welfare Policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank in Washington, DC, Sharon Parrott was one of the first people to note that particular inconsistency. In a Jan. 31 policy paper, she pointed out that during legislative negotiations Republicans had backed off of earlier plans to eliminate rules that penalize married couples. This resulted in a strange contradiction in the bill: It earmarks unprecedented funding for marriage promotion, but also requires states to enforce newer, tighter work requirements for two-parent families on welfare. Those requirements are so strict that analysts like Parrott believe states that offer assistance to two-parent families will be penalized automatically — and might stop giving couples the same kind of help that’s currently available to single adults.
Parrott told us that the contradiction seems to be the result of complicated legislative rules dictating what can or cannot be included in a budget bill — rather than some intentional and nefarious plot to reduce welfare rolls. But she said that the contradiction shows that, "for all the lip service they’ve played to marriage, when it comes to helping poor two-parent families, they are not so committed."
She also pointed out that the fiscal 2007 budget proposal Bush sent to Congress Feb. 6 suggests upping the annual investment in marriage and fatherhood promotion to $250 million per year. *