Welfare and Wedding Vows: Some Legislators Want to Use Welfare Funds to Strengthen Marriages; Others Have Questions

Article excerpt

For most state legislators, welfare reform meant a laser focus on work--work requirements, stronger sanctions, time limits, job training and support services to move parents off welfare and into jobs. But for legislators like Arizona Senator Mark Anderson strengthening marriage was also a critical part of welfare reform. He agrees with federal welfare reforms that emphasize both marriage and work as the keys to changing welfare.

Once Arizona's work reforms were in place and welfare rolls dropped sharply, Anderson proposed initiatives to strengthen marriage. He pushed for Arizona to use savings in the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program to pay for marriage skills courses and a handbook to educate engaged couples about the challenges involved in marriage. Arizona was the first state to use TANF funds in this way.

Anderson says he faced resistance from other policymakers who felt marriage was a personal issue and that there were more effective ways to respond to poverty and its effects on kids. "Literally hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year in Arizona alone in attempts by government programs, such as child support enforcement, domestic relations courts and domestic violence shelters, to address the aftermath of family breakdown," Anderson says. "The state definitely has an interest in reducing divorce rates and encouraging healthy marriages."

STATES CHOOSE WORK

The federal emphasis on marriage goes back to 1996 when Congress pushed both marriage and work in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. Three of the four purposes for spending TANF money include marriage as a component.

Congressmen were concerned about a simultaneous decline in marriages and an increase in out-of-wedlock children. They were also worried about the growing number of divorces and the high rate of teen pregnancy. Many analysts pointed to this breakdown of family structure as a major reason welfare caseloads had gone up, and they worried how it affected children, regardless of whether the family went on welfare.

In developing their welfare reforms, however, states focused mostly on moving parents into work. Little attention was given in welfare policymaking to promote marriage. Many states adopted covenant marriage laws and divorce reforms separately from welfare. State lawmakers shared a broad consensus on work requirements. Many states had already experimented with requiring parents to work, get training or search for a job in order to receive cash assistance. They had tinkered with time limits and increased child care and transportation assistance for working parents. They were prepared to address the federal law's tough work requirements.

But promoting marriage and increasing the number of children raised in healthy marriages? This was new territory. And there certainly was no research on how states could strengthen marriage. Discussions about marriage policies were met with concerns about forcing welfare moms into marriages. Domestic violence advocates raised strong objections to proposals that could push women to stay in abusive relationships. And what about the single parents who were raising their children well?

So lawmakers started with small steps that focused on how special welfare rules for two-parent families and marriage penalties in the tax code often discouraged marriage. West Virginia adopted a $100 per month bonus for married couples to reduce the financial disincentive for welfare recipients to marry.

BOLD STEPS IN OKLAHOMA

Oklahoma was the first state to think aggressively about how TANF funds could be used to promote marriage. Governor Prank Keating proposed a marriage initiative, not because of concerns about welfare, but because a 1998 study found a direct link between the state's high divorce rate and its slow economic growth. Keating set goals to reduce the state's high out-of-wedlock birth and divorce rates and set aside $10 million from TANF savings for the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. …