Wedding Bells and Welfare Bucks by Alana Kumbier

Attention, Single Mamas: George W. Bush has a proposal for you: a marriage proposal. That's right, he wants you to get married. You're particularly encouraged to don a bridal veil if you're on welfare and/or parenting as part of an unmarried couple. If you act now, you might even be able to get hitched before Congress makes its decisions about Bush's plan to fund marriage initiative and abstinence-only education programs with welfare dollars. The Administration is proposing the allocation of $400 million for marriage initiatives ($300 million at the federal level, with an additional $100 million dollar bonus for states that get the most women married or have 'successful' marriage initiatives), and $135 million for abstinence education, to be drawn from welfare funds.
These marriage initiatives are part of Bush's proposal for the reauthorization of the nation's welfare laws. In late February, Bush unveiled his welfare plan during a speech at a Catholic church in Southeast Washington. In his speech, Bush stated that the welfare policy should focus on the creation and maintenance of stable families, announcing that his "administration will give unprecedented support to strengthening marriage." As Washington Post staff writer Amy Goldstein reported, the White House plans to require states to include "explicit descriptions of their family-formation and healthy-marriage efforts" in the welfare plans they submit to the federal government. The House passed Bush's welfare legislation (HR 4737) in May, and the Senate is working on its welfare reform bill now, with hopes to have its work finished in July.
The proposal for welfare reauthorization put forth by the Bush Administration builds upon the "success" of the 1996 reforms. Bush's proposal calls for tougher work standards, which would require welfare recipients to work 40 hours per week (supposedly, in 1996, states had the option of allowing 20 hours of work and 10 hours of flexible activities, and states chose to enforce 30 hours of work instead, allowing two of those days to be used for narrowly-defined education and training activities), allocating $400 million for marriage promotion campaigns, and spending $135 million on abstinence education. Increased spending for childcare (for mothers and fathers who have to work those 40 hours), or for training or education for welfare recipients, aren't part of this proposal.
What's happening with welfare now
In order to better understand Bush's proposals for welfare reauthorization, as well as their potential effects, it's a good idea to revisit the 1996 reforms that created the current welfare systems in place across the U.S. Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWOA) in 1996. This new law replaced existing welfare programs with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which was enacted with the stipulation that Congress would have to reauthorize TANF by the end of September 2002. The TANF law defined primary objectives for welfare reform as "promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; preventing and reducing the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and encouraging the formation and maintenance of two-parent families." In this formulation, states were able to define who constituted a family, and what types of assistance different family units might receive (note that the language of the law does not require that parents be married, only that they share parenting responsibilities in the home). Immigrants (even those with children who are U.S. citizens) are ineligible for any assistance, regardless of their familial status.
The TANF reforms set a five-year lifetime limit for welfare recipients (such that if an individual or family has received five years' worth of benefits, they will be ineligible for future assistance), and increased work requirements, while simultaneously creating stricter definitions of countable "work" activities. Under TANF, single parents must work 30 hours per week, and parents in two-parent families must work 35 hours per week (though in many states, like Montana, two-parent families have to work up to 60 hours a week to qualify for assistance) to be eligible for welfare assistance. Parents cannot receive TANF funds while pursuing further education or training, unless this training is part of a vocational education program or is specifically applicable to the recipient's job, and is supplemental to 20 hours of other work activity. Recipients cannot count parenting/childcare, literacy education, ESL courses or college study as work activities. While TANF does provide some childcare benefits, and may waive work activities requirements for parents who cannot find adequate childcare, recipients are often not informed about these benefits.
The TANF legislation's efforts to reduce out-of-wedlock births materialized in the form of annual $100 million "illegitimacy bonuses" to the five states that had achieved the greatest reduction in the number of out-of-wedlock births. These efforts were supplemented by federally funded "abstinence-only" education programs, for which $250 million was allocated.
According to some poverty rights and feminist activists, TANF's effects have been detrimental to welfare recipients, and their status as a foundation for similar legislation is highly problematic. In response to TANF's flexibility on family formation initiatives, 23 states have instituted "family cap" policies for welfare recipients, denying welfare assistance to children born to parents already on welfare, or placing tougher work requirements on mothers who exceed the family cap. NOW-LDEF notes that non-marital births have not decreased as a result of these initiatives. In at least one state (New Jersey), the reduction in out-of-wedlock births was concurrent with an increase in abortions.
We don't yet know the results of "abstinence-only" education, but as the NOW-LDEF site observes that the "education, mentoring, and counseling programs funded under the law must adhere to a specific set of eight tenets, such as 'sex outside of marriage is likely to be psychologically and physically harmful'," while not providing important information about taking measures to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies.
Even with TANF funding, families on welfare often don't receive enough assistance to make ends meet, or to avoid serious hardship. Though they may be working 30 to 40 hours a week, recipients still may not rise above the poverty level, if their jobs pay less than a living wage. Without the education or training necessary to prepare for better employment, parents may find themselves without viable options for advancement once their benefits run out.
State Marriage Initiatives
As a result of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act's emphasis on the formation and maintenance of two-parent families, several states have begun to experiment with different initiatives linking marriage initiatives with welfare funds. In West Virginia, TANF funds have been allocated to add a $100 bonus to families' monthly benefits if the parents on welfare marry each other. Oklahoma is working on a $10 million Marriage Initiative plan that includes public education campaigns, youth outreach and education, the integration of pro-marriage counseling in social service programs, and a specific religious initiative encouraging religious leaders to encourage their church and synagogue members to undergo pre-marital counseling. The Michigan Family Independence Agency, partially financed with welfare funds, was established to provide marital and family counseling and anger management courses to interested individuals. Utah has allocated a portion of its TANF surplus for a marriage education campaign that will be developed over a two-year period, and the state legislature raised the minimum age for marriage from 14 to 16 years old.
Arizona has been particularly gung-ho in its marriage initiatives. According to the NOW-LDEF, the state has allocated $1 million for marriage skills classes offered by community-based organizations, and it has established a Marriage and Communication Skills Commission, whose projects include the creation and distribution of a "healthy marriage" handbook to all couples applying for a marriage license, and funding vouchers for low income couples attending marriage-skills classes. The Arizona legislature also passed a Covenant Marriage law in 1998, "under which couples promise to stay married for life and renounce their legal right to a no-fault divorce."
Fighting for alternatives that empower single mothers
The very real possibility of building further ties between marriage initiatives and welfare money has been a call to action for a number of welfare advocates and activists, for feminists, for civil rights leaders, and for those in support of individual citizens' privacy and right to choice regarding marriage and family planning. These activists and advocates are working to raise awareness about flaws in current and proposed welfare policy, and to warn Americans about the threats such policies pose to families on welfare, as well as to the public at large.
In a recent interview, Dorian Solot, Co-founder of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, an nonprofit advocacy organization that works to promote "equality and fairness for unmarried people, including people who choose not to marry, cannot marry, or live together before marriage," identified several flaws in the logic of state and federal marriage promotion initiatives.
"The first problem is there's no evidence that promoting marriage will help anyone get out of poverty," Solot said. "If we agree that the purpose of welfare is to help people escape poverty, then we have no reason to believe that marriage is going to help us achieve that goal. The second problem is that there's an assumption that anyone who wants to can get married, and so of course there are gay and lesbian people who can't marry, heterosexual people who can't marry because they're not in a relationship, because their partner is abusive and not marrying is a really wise decision. Perhaps the third problem is the belief that if women marry, the guy they're marrying is going to be the guy on 'Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire' - when the reality is that the men that most poor women marry are poor men, and don't have the resources to get their families what they need and to get on their feet financially.
"There's a certain body of research about the positive effects of marriage, and that's what a lot of these policy arguments are based on," she noted. "But we don't know anything about whether marriages that are produced or coerced by government agencies have those same effects - in fact, there may be good reason to suspect they don't have the same positive effects, because maybe we need to be trusting people to make that very private decision themselves."
Solot acknowledges that it's difficult for many politicians and public figures to openly oppose these marriage promotion proposals. "Everyone loves marriage - there isn't really anyone who'll say 'I'm against marriage,' which makes it hard to criticize these proposals and means that all politicians need to be behind them, politically. But the reality is they don't even begin to address the realities of peoples' lives, particularly poor peoples'. "I think that most of the people who are opposing or critiquing the marriage promotion proposals think marriage is great and don't have any problem with the idea that we should help build strong families and strong marriages, but do have problems with spending money to do that."
For Kate Kahan, Executive Director of Working for Equality and Economic Liberation (WEEL), a grassroots organization that started in response to welfare reform, fighting marriage promotion campaigns at the state and federal level has been both personally and politically important. Kahan, a single mother with a nine-year-old son, was on welfare and going to college when the 1996 welfare reforms happened. "I experienced that big transition of welfare reform personally, and barely finished college," she said in a recent interview. "I bring a strong feminist element and approach to this [work], and one of the big issues that everyone in this organization has had is this direct attack on women's private lives by trying to control who they marry and whether or not their children are illegitimate through welfare policy."
Kahan and her colleagues made an important discovery early on in their poverty-rights work, that they could build power through coalition-building with similar groups in the region (WEEL is based in Montana). "One of the things that's significant about what we've done is we've figured out pretty quickly that we are totally divided along state lines," Kahan said. "All of our welfare programs are different, and even if our folks are experiencing the same circumstances, all of our policies are so different. We figured out that what we needed to do was work across state lines and build our power, and so we started a regional network of seven western states working on welfare issues.
"People in the progressive community were shocked we were able to figure that out; it was pretty soon after welfare reform. We immediately identified the reauthorization of the welfare reform bill as something we needed to be involved in, and because we had the experience from the ground - our members, some of us staff members, had been there directly. That element was missing in '96 in the debates, and is an absolute necessity for the 2002 debates."
Through a particularly serendipitous turn of political events, Kahan's home state was thrust into the welfare-reform spotlight. "Montana has key congressional delegation for the welfare reform issue," she said. "Montana Senator Max Baucus is chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, the committee which holds jurisdiction over welfare. Essentially, Senator Baucus will be responsible for creating the welfare bill that will go to the President. Given this situation, WEEL and allies on the state level began an assertive education campaign focused on Montana's experience with welfare reform. This education work has led WEEL and their allies into the national spotlight due to its level of success in educating Senator Baucus on which welfare policies make sense for people on poverty. Senator Baucus has publicly denounced government involvement in whether or not low-income families should be married, thanks to WEEL's efforts."
"I see this as an issue of choice, hands down," Kahan continued. "We can relate this to issues we've seen in the past where restrictive policies have begun with low-income women, but didn't stop there. For example, the Hyde Amendment that restricted money going into any sort of abortion services for low-income women has resulted in tremendously scary debates about whether or not you should be able to get birth control if you're on Medicaid. Or, there are the sterilization efforts on the reservations - those are all direct, concerted attacks on low-income women, and they end up domino-effecting to affect all other women. I see this as the exact same thing - when restrictive policies start with low-income women, they don't stop there."
Aside from the potential future ramifications these marriage-welfare policies may have for low-income women and the public at large, feminists and welfare advocates are concerned with the effects these policies have on women and children who are facing domestic violence situations, for whom barriers to getting a divorce can be deadly.
"We do advocacy work at WEEL, so we help people navigate their way through the very complicated welfare systems we have now," Kahan said. "One of the main reasons that people call here for advocacy, over 50 percent of the time, is domestic violence, and they're in a situation where they can't get on assistance. I see this marriage promotion piece as being another barrier for women leaving, because if you go into a welfare office and you see a poster with a nuclear family saying 'You want more welfare benefits, talk to your caseworker,' or you have your case worker saying 'No, you should really go to this marriage counselor before you leave,' it's going to be deadly. That's one of my main concerns. "I have personal experience with having been a young mother. I had little to no job experience when I went to apply for welfare, and I had $7 too much in my bank account, so I got turned away. I ended up not being able to get a job, and I got married to the father of my child. Two years later, I left a very violent home. Marriage wasn't the solution to my poverty or my son's poverty. If I hadn't left that home, I would have died, and that's reflected in so many of the women's lives that we work with."
Kahan realizes that the struggle to raise awareness about these marriage promotion campaigns, and about the importance of questioning and critiquing the Bush administration's proposals is a rhetorical one. Effecting specific material changes to improve the lives of families on welfare means going beyond simple, individual "solutions" like marriage. It also means making these issues relevant to the population at large. Kahan and other welfare and civil rights advocates are ready to make specific arguments to populations who might not consider themselves implicated in welfare reform or marriage promotion. In Kahan, and WEEL's, case, these arguments come in the handy form of an activists' handbook that Kahan has produced to inspire and inform people who want to fight conservative welfare reform plans.
"Different people will relate to this issue from different angles," Kahan said. "There's the choice angle; this really starts to get at reproductive freedom. The privacy issues, we've all seen these when addressing healthcare and women's healthcare. There's also a lot of racist policy - this is really geared towards getting African American women to marry and get off welfare. There's a wage gap argument: these proposals totally ignore the fact that women don't make as much money as men. There's a discrimination argument: this clearly discriminates against gay and lesbian folks.
"I think it's racist and sexist policy specifically veiled in family values rhetoric," Kahan added. "We've seen this strategy before, many times. The Bush proposal for welfare offers over-simplified, band-aid solutions to the complex issues surrounding poverty in our country. Framing such superficial proposals in family values rhetoric completely avoids addressing the very real issue of poverty. So far, the democrats haven't figured out how to get out of the familiar corner such rhetoric has backed them into. It seems pretty obvious to me that capturing the debate back to one that addresses poverty and the needs of America's poor is imperative and not that difficult. After all, Bush isn't talking about poverty reduction in any way, shape or form."
Even some Republicans may find themselves siding with folks like Kahan and Solot. "It's so contradictory to the spiel you usually get from Republicans, that the government shouldn't be involved in people's private lives," Kahan said.
Strengthening families
It's important to note that most people who are opposed to policies that link marriage to welfare are not anti-family. Kahan and Solot agree that there are reasonable, constructive ways to help families on welfare. Both women stress the importance of creating and supporting policies that would allow mothers and fathers to care for their children materially and emotionally. WEEL's "Family Strengthening" proposal calls for an end to discrimination against unmarried, two-parent families, funding for at-home care programs that would allow low-income parents to choose to stay home with their children, increased funding for high-quality childcare, working to ensure that child support dollars are received by families, and protecting families in domestic violence situations as well as helping them through crisis.
"Parents need to be able to take care of their kids in a real way that makes sense," Kahan emphasizes at the end of our interview. "They need to get the money that's owed to them through child support, and we need to create more opportunities to help struggling families get out of poverty."
"If your criteria are children's well-being," Solot observed, "the programs that helped children the most were the ones that raised their parents' incomes, whether that was through helping them get jobs, or jobs that paid living wages, or less direct ways like ensuring they had transportation to get to work, or child care. When you add up families' total assets and incomes, the families who have more have their children doing better. Those kinds of programs are a lot more complicated, and nowhere near as appealing as just saying 'Oh, get married.'"
For more information: To find out more about WEEL's work, or to request a copy of WEEL's activist handbook for fighting Bush's welfare reauthorization plan, visit or e-mail Visit the Alternatives to Marriage site And learn more about the status of welfare reauthorization legislation before the senate at the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund site.