On Psychology

Jewish World Review April 6, 2000 /30 Adar II, 5760

Dr. Wade Horn

Use Welfare Money to Promote Marriage

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- I have spent much of the past four years traveling around the country exhorting state officials to spend some of their welfare dollars on activities which promote marriage, both as a means of reducing welfare rolls (married adults are significantly less likely to be poor than unmarried adults) and as a means of improving child well-being.

Everywhere I went, my exhortations resulted either in disbelief that welfare funds could be spent for such a purpose or with scornful dismissals that marriage is none of government's business. Given such reactions, it was not surprising that no state had spent even a penny on activities to promote marriage. All of that changed on Tuesday, March 21 -- and not a moment too soon.

Econophone A little background. Congressionally enacted welfare reform did many things. It required that the vast majority of welfare recipients go to work; it placed a five year time limit on the receipt of welfare; and it replaced an open-ended federal entitlement to cash welfare with a block grant, giving states much more flexibility in how they spend federal welfare dollars.

But welfare reform legislation did more than all that. It added the idea that from now on, welfare would also be about promoting marriage, that welfare funds could -- and should -- be used to promote the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.

Theoretically, states could have devoted 100 percent of their welfare block-grant funds to this purpose. More realistically, they were expected to devote at least some portion of these funds to promote marriage. In actuality, states devoted nothing -- not one red cent.

Until March 21, that is. In a bold move, Governor Keating of Oklahoma announced on that date that he would be using $10 million in federal welfare block-grant funds to encourage healthy, stable marriages as a means of reducing divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and welfare dependency.

Trakdata His announcement was a follow-up to his launching of an Oklahoma Marriage Initiative last year. Since then, the Governor and First Lady Cathy Keating have been busy laying the groundwork for this bold initiative by speaking with leaders from a variety of sectors of Oklahoma life -- including business, the faith community, education, social services, government, the courts, and the media -- seeking input as to how marriage can be strengthened most effectively.

Governor Keating and his wife have also held several public meetings on the topic. As a result, in his recent inaugural and State of the State addresses, the Governor laid out his ambitious goal of reducing the state's divorce rate by one-third by the end of the decade.

Although the action plan for this initiative has not yet been finalized, major activities will most likely include the development of a Marriage Resource Center; a public education campaign emphasizing the importance of marriage; youth outreach to change the attitudes of young people about the virtues and advantages of marriage; encouragement of pre-marital counseling; and the integration of pro-marriage activities into existing social service delivery systems.

This is extraordinary news. My hope is that other states will follow Governor Keating's lead and use at least some of their welfare block-grant surpluses to develop marriage initiatives of their own.

Plenty of surplus money available in state welfare block-grant funds -- $7.5 billion to be exact. Although some states have already dedicated some of these surplus funds for other purposes, it is estimated that at least $4.2 billion is available for marriage-promoting activities. Given the current weakened state of marriage in America, we'll need to spend a whole lot more than $10 million dollars out of this $4.2 billion surplus to revitalize it.

There are signs that the floodgates for spending on marriage initiatives are opening. The Wisconsin Legislature, for example, recently designated $45,000 in welfare funds to be used to hire a person "to develop community-wide standards for marriages solemnized in the state."

Moreover, state Rep. Mark Anderson has introduced a bill into the Arizona Legislature to spend $17 million in welfare funds to teach communication and conflict resolution skills to high school students, give tax credits to couples who take such a course, and develop a public education campaign extolling the virtues of marriage.

There will, of course, be the inevitable nay-sayers. A regrettable alliance of critics from both the libertarian right and the we-hate-marriage left will assert that government has no business promoting marriage. Some fiscal conservatives will join in and argue that we can't afford to spend tax dollars on such things.

These critics, of course, will be wrong. Marriage is indispensable to the well-being of a healthy society, more important than a rising Dow Jones Industrial Average or trigger locks on handguns. That's because research consistently finds that communities with high marriage rates have fewer social pathologies, including less crime and less welfare dependency, than communities with low marriage rates. If marriage is good for communities, why should government be shy about promoting and strengthening it?

Governor Keating addressed these critics himself when he said at the launching of this initiative, "Frankly, some people asked Cathy and me what business the government has getting involved in marriage. But when you look at the consequences of divorce, the better question is: 'What business do we have not getting involved?'"

None that I can think of, Governor. None at all.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 2000, Dr. Wade F. Horn