WASHINGTON -- Conservatives who successfully argued that the nation's welfare system must aggressively push poor people into jobs are preparing to push something more personal: marriage.
They argue that the breakdown of the two-parent family is the root cause of welfare dependence, and that millions of Americans will remain trapped in poverty unless the nation fosters a culture of marriage in poor communities.
"All the data we have says that kids do best when they grow up in two-parent families," said Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., chairman of the House Ways and Means welfare subcommittee, who plans hearings on the issue. "We'd like to see a return to the family unit and to family values."
Nationally, one in three babies is born to unmarried parents. And among women with less than a high school education, 60 percent were unmarried when they gave birth.
One of the 1996 welfare law's central purposes was to encourage formation of two-parent families, but so far states have spent little time, energy or money to this end. That is partly because it raises sensitive questions about the role of government and partly because there is little evidence about what works.
Now debate is beginning over what changes are needed to that law, which must be renewed by next year, and conservatives are laying the groundwork for a stronger focus on marriage. Liberals have concerns, but are not rejecting their ideas out of hand.
--requiring states to spend part of their welfare money on pro-marriage activities.
--encouraging caseworkers to talk to pregnant women about marrying the fathers of their unborn babies.
--judging state success based on reductions in out-of-wedlock births.
--teaching about the value of marriage in high school.
--sponsoring experiments to see what programs might produce more marriages.
The role of marriage in social policy has been a contentious, painful debate since 1965, when a future senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, prompted charges of racism with his report on the breakdown of black family. Pointing to the rising number of black babies born to unmarried parents, he suggested that the absence of fathers and male role models -- along with the income they provide -- explained myriad social problems.
At the time, about one in four black babies was born to unmarried parents. By 1999, it was 69 percent.
Still, 35 years later, there is little agreement on how to put families together.
"Until we get more evidence, I'm not so sure we should be spending huge sums of money here," said Wendell Primus, a welfare authority at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, who left a top welfare job in the Clinton administration to protest the president's decision to sign the 1996 overhaul.
"There are clearly some marriages that aren't going to work," Primus added. "Government can't force two people to love each other when their relationship has broken apart."
Sandra Robertson, an advocate for the poor in Georgia, suggests that poor women are perfectly capable of deciding when marriage is right for them.
"I'm especially surprised that the party that talks about wanting government out of our lives, of wanting government to stay away from social engineering, seems to have a desire to do that for poor people," Robertson said.
Others worry that women may wind up pressured to stay in unhealthy -- even abusive -- relationships.
Robert Rector, a leading conservative welfare expert, argues that government should not coerce anyone into marriage but should suggest and encourage it. With a push, he says, some couples are bound to succeed.
"You could say, 'Here's a mentoring group. You don't have to do this. But it's a free group to try and improve a relationship that can lead you to a lifetime of love and commitment,"' he said. "I think it's absolutely tragic that we don't do anything like that now."
Talking about marriage would be a giant departure for welfare caseworkers, who used to simply calculate whether an applicant was eligible for benefits, said Susan Golonka, welfare expert at the National Governors Association. Caseworkers have already expanded their duties to include job counseling, and adding marriage counseling would be another big step.
"There would be a lot of people who would be uncomfortable," she said.
There is little pro-marriage activity in social policy today. Some fatherhood programs work to help fathers find jobs -- partly so they can pay child support -- and to participate in their children's lives. But co-parenting, not marriage, is the focus.
Primus, Robertson and other liberals are not rejecting the marriage push wholesale, suggesting Rector may be right when he predicts a growing consensus for a stronger focus on marriage.
"I don't think progressives should be scared of this issue," Primus said. "We also believe in marriage and two-parent families."
And Robertson, who directs the Georgia Citizens' Coalition on Hunger, says: "It's clear when a child is wanted, and when a child has two parents ... that child has a better chance."
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