Shotgun Weddings by Uncle Sam?

Bush would use federal funds to promote two-parent homes

It came as no surprise when U.S. Census data released on May 14 showed the nuclear family in decline. Still, the striking numbers--married couples with children make up less than one-fourth of households--set off alarms among conservatives who ascribe a host of societal ills to the demise of the two-parent family.

President Bush, however, is already on the case. In a little-noticed twist on social engineering by government, his budget seeks $315 million for programs that promote fatherhood and marriage. "Conservatives see a clear relationship between poverty and illegitimacy and lack of family formation," says Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Marshall Wittman. "You're going to see a big focus on dads in the Bush White House."

ESTRANGED. Conservatives aren't the only ones jumping on the fatherhood bandwagon. Senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who chairs the pro-business Democratic Leadership Council, is sponsoring legislation to set aside $380 million in block grants to the states to promote fatherhood. Among the bill's co-sponsors is Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), and similar legislation introduced in the House has been endorsed by the Congressional Black Caucus. Community groups that provide counseling and support services to low-income fathers estranged from their children would be eligible for the funds.

Promoting marriage is not a novel idea: A handful of states now use money from federal welfare block grants to foster wedlock. West Virginia, for example, gives couples on public assistance an additional $100 a month if they marry. And some conservatives want to go further: When welfare reform comes up for renewal next year, they would earmark funds for programs like premarital counseling in inner-city schools.

One reason marriage figures prominently in the Bush agenda is Wade Horn, who is awaiting confirmation as Health & Human Services Assistant Secretary for Family Support. Horn created a private program in Maryland called the National Fatherhood Initiative and is a strong advocate of integrating marriage promotion into social services. For example, he would give married couples priority over single-parent families for benefits such as public housing and child care.

The paradox of throwing more money at fatherhood initiatives is that existing programs do not have a great track record of turning absent fathers into stable breadwinners. For example, in a 1998 study of one of the best-known programs, Parents' Fair Share, which operated in seven cities using government and foundation funding, most of the men enrolled showed no improved ability to hold a job or pay child support. Nor did the program on average increase the amount of visitation between men and their children.

IN ARREARS. Horn and other fatherhood proponents counter that the shortcomings of Fair Share should not predict the success of future programs. Fair Share, he says, intervened too late to help the enrolled men, all of whom had substantial child-support arrears. The most auspicious moment to work with unwed fathers, says Horn, is around the time of the birth of their children, when almost half are cohabiting with the mothers. The theory is that persuading these couples to marry would help ensure a consistent paternal presence.

Existing research does suggest that as many as three-fourths of kids born to cohabiting parents will see their parents split up before they reach 16, compared with approximately one-third born to married parents. And children reared in two-parent homes do better on virtually every social indicator, from the likelihood of living above the poverty line to finishing high school.

Wendell Primus, director of income security at the liberal Center on Budget & Policy Priorities, accepts that children are better off in stable, two-parent families. But he questions whether government can--or should--bring about marital unions. "I tell these guys: `You're the conservatives here. You've always said there are limits to what government can do,"' says Primus. "There is no evidence that what they want to do is effective."

Rather than promote marriage, Primus believes the best way to improve the odds that fragile families will stay together is reducing the economic stresses that plague indigent households. One example: the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), which allowed parents on welfare to continue to collect benefits as long as their earnings did not go over 40% of the poverty threshold, or about $18,200 for a family of three. An unexpected outcome of the pilot program was that MFIP clients were more likely to get and remain married than people enrolled in the standard welfare system.

It's not just liberals who are skeptical about the marriage agenda. "I can't think of anything further outside of constitutional boundaries," says David Boaz, executive vice-president of the libertarian Cato Institute.

"THEIR DAUGHTERS"? Many directors of fatherhood programs also bristle at the idea of promoting matrimony. Instead, they say the focus should be on making their clients marriage material through counseling and job training. "I wonder if these conservatives would be so dedicated to marriage promotion if it was their daughters they were trying to marry these guys off to," says Robert Brady of the Young Fathers Program in Denver. "These men walk through my door with a lot of problems."

Joseph T. Jones, president of the Center for Fathers, Families & Workforce Development in Baltimore, doesn't wait for young fathers to come to him. Instead, Jones and his team get the names of fathers from women on welfare, track them down, and often make repeated efforts to enroll them in the program. "If we went in there talking about marriage...we'd probably get beaten up or shot," says Jones.

Not all longtime observers of fatherhood programs believe that forcing marriage onto the agenda is counterproductive, though. Ronald Mincy, a professor of social work at Columbia University, says that with out-of-wedlock childbearing in the African American community near 70%, an aggressive approach might be needed. But marriage promotion cannot happen in isolation, Mincy cautions. Women are three times as likely to want to marry the father of their child if he holds a job, so helping these men become gainfully employed could go a long way toward fostering two-parent households. "I hope that the marriage agenda isn't imposed without the economic agenda," says Mincy. "That would be like telling the children of Israel to build bricks without straw."

By Alexandra Starr in Washington

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.