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Welfare and wedding vows: some legislators want to use welfare funds to strengthen marriages; others have questions.

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."


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.


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.

The problem was not that Oklahomans did not marry, but rather they married and divorced younger and more often than people from other states. The marriage initiative focuses on developing marriage skills such as communication and dealing with conflict, as well as training for individual parents who receive cash assistance. The state expects to cut down on divorce by helping young couples understand the commitment of marriage. The program is designed to reduce the number of early marriages and improve married couples' ability to deal with conflicts.

"The goal of the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative is to improve the well-being of children by strengthening marriages," says Mary Myrick, project manager. "We need to help our young people make wise choices, understand the commitment of marriage and learn the skills to have successful marriages. We have a complex task before us, but Oklahomans highly value marriage. And we want to help them succeed in sustaining healthy relationships."


As the governor's marriage initiative developed, many policymakers were skeptical. Legislators questioned the relevance of marriage education for the low-income, single mothers served by Oklahoma's welfare program. Most of the mothers were focused on getting jobs and moving out of poverty. Few had stable relationships where marriage could provide the way off welfare and toward self-sufficiency. Many officials were uncomfortable about government involvement in personal relationships. Legislators were also concerned about appropriating $10 million of the state's TANF block grant to fund the initiative. "We are not against marriage," says Senator Bernest Cain, chair of the Oklahoma Senate Human Services Committee, "but we don't know how well these programs work and whether they will actually help children. There are immediate needs of children and mothers in low-income families that need to be addressed now. We don't believe that money for Low-income mothers should be diverted to fund services for married couple s at this time."

Initiative supporters made a concerted effort to take these concerns into account. They assembled an advisory committee of national experts and conducted a survey of Oklahomans' attitudes toward marriage. They chose a marriage education curriculum--the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program--that they considered to have the strongest research base. The course is offered to TANF recipients and couples who request it.

There are alternative versions of the program for people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds. Oklahoma sought to defuse concerns about entanglements between government and religion by deciding not to contract with religious groups to provide services. Initiative leaders worked to build relationships with the Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Head Start, Indian leaders and other skeptical groups.

Four years after it started, the Oklahoma program is nationally recognized as the most comprehensive state effort to strengthen marriages. Many officials are looking at it to find out if such initiatives can increase marriages, reduce divorces and improve the well-being of children. It has gained wide support from Oklahomans--85 percent of the respondents in the survey said that a statewide initiative to promote marriage and reduce divorce was a good or very good idea. But its gradual start-up means that many of the services are just becoming available. Even as other states and communities look to borrow from the program, researchers are still developing evidence about its effects.

In addition to Arizona and Oklahoma, Michigan, Utah and West Virginia have set up marriage initiatives with TANF money. Four of these states are providing marriage education to help couples succeed in their relationships.


After taking office, President Bush re-emphasized the place of marriage in welfare reform, resulting in more state-level discussions. His proposal for TANF reauthorization strongly encourages states to develop policies to promote healthy marriages and provides new funding for state and community efforts.

Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services, says that strengthening marriage will improve children's well-being. American culture has devalued marriage and the traditional family, he says. Marriage needs to be openly discussed in a realistic manner. The administration's marriage initiative, Horn says, is about improving and strengthening marriages, not just increasing marriage rates.

Horn argues that government shouldn't shy away from the M-word.

"We spend extraordinary amounts of money to pick up the pieces after a marriage has failed or when a child is born out of wedlock. It seems to us not unreasonable to spend a little bit of money to try to prevent some of these things from happening in the first place," he says. "You want to talk about government being involved in the intimate affairs of life? Go get a divorce. You're going to have the courts and government agencies tell you when you can see your kids, how often you can see your kids, how much money you have to spend on your kids. That's pretty intrusive."

At the same time, the administration recognizes that development of effective policies aimed at strengthening marriages is in the early stages. Although relationship skills training has been shown to help keep marriages together, government programs to strengthen marriages have not yet been evaluated. Such initiatives are much like welfare-to-work efforts at the beginning. Relatively few states and communities have adopted marriage initiatives. Like Oklahoma, they are waiting to see how they affect marriage, divorce and children's well-being.

There may be money for marriage initiatives and evaluating them. The president's budget allocates $200 million to two new funds that would encourage states and communities to develop and evaluate policies to strengthen marriages. Services could include premarital education, marriage skills training, conflict management classes and community marriage programs.


Many legislators resist the idea that marriage initiatives are effective responses to the challenges facing welfare families. Although they may support marriage, they are concerned about diverting money from low-income families to fund programs that probably will benefit couples who are already married or who face better prospects for marriage.

Recent research documents that low-income couples are interested in marriage, but poor mothers don't feel it is a option based on the men they know. For example, roughly 90 percent of these women rate "husband having a steady job" and "emotional maturity" as very important qualities for a successful marriage. However, studies find that 38 percent of unmarried fathers had been incarcerated, 34 percent do not have high school diplomas, up to 25 percent of noncustodial fathers live in poverty and 20 percent earn less than $6,000 a year.

Low-income unmarried parents are considered "fragile families" because they have a higher risk of dissolution. Although the couple is usually in a loving relationship at the time of a child's birth-many even considering marriage-mothers on welfare report being skeptical because of concerns over their partners' alcohol and drug use or inability to financially support a family.

Many believe that marriage skills training is not likely to move fragile families toward marriage or self-sufficiency. Legislators concerned with providing services to low-income, unmarried parents argue that funds should be used to help them overcome personal challenges and move into jobs. This type of support would permit unmarried parents to gain self-esteem and financial stability-making marriage more likely. Other policymakers, however, contend that marriage needs to be discussed at the time of the child's birth, when many couples consider it. This "magic moment" may be an opportunity for marriage to be considered and established as a goal for the well-being of the family.

Many unmarried, low-income couples have few positive role models for good marriages and are skeptical about whether it will work. Policies designed to target this population have to consider many social and cultural factors that influence the lives of fragile families. Whether marriage initiatives can effectively benefit welfare parents is often an unresolved dilemma as state lawmakers debate these issues.

"We have to help these parents rebuild their lives first. They have to develop job skills, get and keep a job and get out of poverty. Maybe then they can think about marriage," says Arkansas Representative Jay Bradford.


The president's proposal to create new funds for healthy marriage initiatives will certainly draw increased legislative attention at a time when little new money is available in other human service areas.

Experience shows that agreement on ways to strengthen marriage is often difficult, even among policymakers interested in the same broad goals. Officials do not have research-tested government initiatives to help them settle on how to proceed. And there is still substantial misunderstanding about what marriage initiatives involve and how they affect low-income, single-parent families.

Legislators developing a marriage initiative may want to consider what other states have done:

* Identify key people and create a marriage commission or task force. Commission members may include representatives from the domestic violence community, educators, religious leaders, judges who perform civil ceremonies, family law judges, and people from the gay and lesbian communities.

* Initiate research on marriage. State policymakers can use cooperative state research, education and extension services to conduct research on marriage attitudes, divorce and marriage statistics or develop marriage skills courses on problem-solving, budgeting and communication.

* Provide marriage skills training. State officials can identify and select a skill-based curriculum that addresses how to manage relationship conflicts. Various curricula are designed for teens, new parents, engaged couples, married couples and couples that identify with specific religious or ethnic groups.

* Adopt "fragile families" approaches. State and community agencies can offer services that help unmarried new parents develop healthy relationships with each other and their children. Such services can focus on employment, parenting skills and relationship building and may include a marriage component.

Debates over if, when and how to support marriage may be heard in many statehouses this year. It is difficult for most legislators to imagine creating new, untested social programs during these tight budget times, but many believe that they have already waited too long to get involved in strengthening marriage. The results of these deliberations will determine the role that marriage plays in states' welfare reforms.

 Births to
 Marriages unmarried mothers

1960 73.5 21.6
1970 76.5 26.4
1980 61.4 29.4
1990 54.5 43.8
2000 46.5 45.2

Source: U.S. Bureau of the Census

Note: Table made from line graph


$600,000 in TANF funds to the governor's commission on marriage for pilot programs for engaged couples and "fragile families," a marriage resource Web site, a curriculum for high school seniors, a video for engaged couples and annual marriage conferences.

$1.1 million in TANF funds for community-based marriage education programs, vouchers for parents to attend marriage skills courses and a marriage handbook for engaged couples.

More than $12 million in TANF funds have been spent since 1997 to give married recipients an extra $100 a month in cash assistance.

$250,000 in TANF funds to provide marital counseling, domestic violence counseling, family counseling, communication, anger management and parenting skills.

$10 million in TANF funds to establish a marriage resource center, provide public education on the virtues of marriage, encourage premarital counseling and integrate marriage education into existing social services programs.


* Children living with two biological parents tend to have better cognitive and emotional development and school achievement than children living with single parents.

* Children raised in single-parent homes are at greater risk of poverty, juvenile delinquency, teen pregnancy and are more likely to divorce as adults.

* About 6 percent of children in married families were poor in 1999 compared with more than 35 percent in single-mother families.

* Children growing up without two married parents are about twice as likely to drop out of school, more than 50 percent more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol, have less stable relationships as adults, and girls are more than 50 percent more likely to have a child as a teen.

Sources: The Consequences of Divorce for Adults and Children, by Paul Amato and Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps, by Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur.


The welfare bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in February includes several provisions on healthy marriage and fatherhood programs, including new funds. The Senate has yet to take up the bill.

The key provisions of the House bill include:

* A $100 million competitive annual grant fund for states, territories and tribal organizations to develop programs to support healthy, married, two-parent families. Grants could be used for advertising campaigns; high school programs; premarital education and marriage skills training; divorce reduction programs; and marriage mentoring programs. Grants would require a 50 percent match. Other federal funds could be used to meet the match requirement.

* A $100 million annual fund for research and demonstration projects and technical assistance focused on healthy marriage and family formation activities. Applicants could include community- and faith-based organizations, state and local governments, and other private organizations.

* A requirement that states address how they intend to encourage equitable treatment of married, two-parent families in their Temporary Assistance to Needy Families programs.

* State-funded programs to prevent out-of-wedlock births, encourage healthy, two-parent, married families or to encourage responsible fatherhood would no longer be tied to income eligibility.

* $20 million each year for competitive grants for public and nonprofit community groups to develop responsible fatherhood programs.

* Elimination of the higher work rate for two-parent families.


Dwayne and Brenda of East Baltimore, Md., had six children, but or ears were not married. They both had problems with abusing drugs and keeping jobs. Brenda got help for her drug addiction when their sixth child was born.

Dwayne was a drug addict, owed $25,000 in child support arrears to Brenda and wasn't working when he sought help. Struggling to get back on his feet and be a better father he sought out services from the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development. Through the fatherhood program and a child support debt reduction program offered in Maryland, Dwayne was able to erase the $25,000 over two years by paying regular monthly child support on the original order. This allowed him to "come above ground" and support his children.

As Dwayne made progress in his own life, he eventually decided to marry the mother of his children. That was not necessarily the goal of his fatherhood program, but the services he received helped him to become "marriageable."

Brenda would not consider marrying him when he had a drug problem and was unemployed. As he improved himself and became more active in the family, marriage became an option for them.

They got married at the fatherhood center.

Courtney Jarchow and Jack Tweedie track welfare reform issues in NCSL's Denver office.
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Author:Tweedie, Jack
Publication:State Legislatures
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U8AZ
Date:Apr 1, 2003
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