U.S. aims to nudge couples to altar

Welfare reform proposal is provoking much debate

May 09, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Chanell Lewis has been with her boyfriend for eight of her 22 years. There have been three children, and once there was a ring - until, in a moment of anger, Lewis did something with it that she doesn't like to talk about.

Lewis says the couple probably will marry one day. But she is in no particular hurry. For one thing, her boyfriend needs steady work - not just a job, but a path to something lasting. "I'm not really thinking about it," she says. "Whenever he's ready, I'm ready."

Lewis' story and those of other unmarried Baltimore men and women whose children remain on the welfare rolls illustrate the problems the Bush administration might have in translating its vision of promoting marriage to the streets.

The administration's proposal to Congress for the reauthorization of the landmark 1996 welfare reform legislation includes $300 million for states to develop programs to nudge couples thinking about marriage toward the altar.

Proponents point to research showing that children are more likely to thrive in two-parent families, and that adults live longer and have greater financial security if they are married.

They also cite a study by researchers at Princeton and Columbia universities of low-income, unmarried couples who have recently had children. The study, which included parents from Baltimore, found that 73 percent of the mothers and 88 percent of the fathers say there is at least a 50-50 chance they will marry the other parent.

"We know that nothing close to [those numbers] ultimately get married," said Wade Horn, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and an architect of the marriage plan. "The question is, why not?"

One reason, proponents of the plan believe, is that the welfare programs of the past punished couples for being married. Some lived apart, seeing each other furtively so the family could continue getting assistance.

Some of those barriers still exist in various state programs. The administration's plan requires states to document what progress they're making to put married and single welfare recipients on equal footing. It also encourages states to develop demonstration projects to provide premarital education and other services to couples who are interested in marriage to help them determine whether they could have a lasting union.

The money set aside for marriage programs is less than 2 percent of the $16 billion that would be allotted to state welfare programs. But the proposal has provoked much debate.

Women's groups have raised fears that mothers will be coerced into marrying abusive men, something Horn vows won't happen. Some critics say government simply has no business getting involved in matters of the heart. Others question whether marriage promotion can work when so many low-income parents lack basics such as homes and jobs.

"They've got this money and they've got these little social-engineering programs, and they go, `Now we could just siphon off hundreds of millions from underfunded poverty programs,'" said Terry O'Neill, membership vice president for the National Organization for Women. "The tragedy is that these are desperately needed dollars."

Programs to encourage marriage have been springing up around the country. Those who run them say they see a renewed interest in the institution among poor African-American couples.

Wesley Hunter, who runs a "marriage ministry" with his wife, Diane, at Israel Baptist Church in East Baltimore, said more couples have been tying the knot. Some of them have been living together for years with school-age children. The ministry organizes group "dates" for married couples and those thinking about marriage, and hands out prizes for the couples who pray the most together.

In Washington, several African-American couples - each with a story of drug addiction, prison or both - appeared recently at a news conference to encourage a favorable view of the Bush plan.

"Words can't even express what it means to me to have a husband by my side," said Philadelphia resident Anita Fulford, who said her husband, Thomas, a parolee and former addict, had persuaded her to stop using drugs.

The couples were brought to the capital by Charles A. Ballard, who fathered a child out of wedlock as a teen-ager and later founded the Institute for Responsible Fatherhood and Family Revitalization, a national organization based in Largo that employs married couples to serve as models for others.

"I have yet to find a woman on welfare who has said, `I don't want a loving, compassionate man to get married to,'" Ballard proclaimed at the news conference.

But some social service providers and religious leaders say there's no point in urging marriage on people who can't make ends meet.

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