Curing poverty takes more than a wedding ring

January 22, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - I was pretty excited last week when I heard President Bush would propose spending $1.5 billion over five years to help couples develop interpersonal skills that promote "healthy marriages."

For a fleeting moment, I hoped he would toss some of that money my way. A cool million alone could make my marriage a lot healthier.

Mr. Bush's plan would direct the money to train counselors to help couples, especially low-income couples, stay married. That's a refreshing turn for an administration that passed two hefty tax cuts during wartime that mostly benefited taxpayers with high incomes. But, ah, this is an election year.

The Bush marriage initiative actually cleared the House and the Senate Finance Committee last year in the White House's welfare reauthorization bill. Now the president is redoubling his efforts to get it through the Senate, just in time to snatch another liberal concern - fighting poverty - away from the Democrats. In addition, Mr. Bush hopes his proposal will placate demands from the religious right for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Mr. Bush opposes same-sex marriages too but balks at pushing a constitutional amendment to that effect. Indeed, the Rev. Al Sharpton will be elected to the White House before gay marriage is legalized nationally. President Bill Clinton signed a Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. Even the Democratic front-runner candidates for president oppose gay marriage, although not civil unions. That's a bipartisan front against holy homosexual matrimony.

But Mr. Bush is no political dummy. Or, at least, his political adviser, Karl Rove, isn't. They probably have noticed how gays and lesbians don't seem to be all that scary to Middle America anymore. The success of gay characters on programs such as Will & Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and now The L Word scares the daylights out of the religious right.

Short of acting as matchmaker, the administration wants simply to help states to do more of what some states are doing already. In Oklahoma, for example, the state provides voluntary marriage workshops for women on welfare. West Virginia offers an extra $100 a month in benefits to welfare moms who marry, to offset other government benefit cuts they might incur.

Conservatives have long held that poverty, particularly child poverty, can be reduced by increasing the number of marriages. They use persuasive statistics to make this argument. After all, only 6.8 percent of married couples with children are in poverty, Census figures show, compared with a third of families headed by unmarried women. Get more single moms married, the conservative argument goes, and you reduce poverty - and the welfare rolls, which means states save money.

Fine. It's hard to argue with such simple logic, but let's try anyway.

After all, single parenthood is as much an effect of poverty as a cause of it - and since poverty is the absence of money, the best cure for poverty is not just a healthy marriage but also a healthy income.

With that in mind, if the Bush administration wants to encourage marriage, it should get back to ending the "marriage penalty" that conservatives correctly criticize as an irrational penalty on working couples who file joint tax returns.

It might also consider the daily struggles of the more than 2 million U.S. workers who have lost their jobs since 2001.

The marriage-minded Bush White House also might consider the family stresses endured by the more than 40 million people who are underinsured or lack health insurance altogether, according to the American Medical Association.

And the administration might consider a study of women from disadvantaged families that was published last February in the journal Social Problems. The Ohio State University study found that while women reaped some economic benefits from marriage, those who married and then divorced experienced higher poverty rates than those who never married.

No, marriage alone will not solve all of the problems caused by unwed parenting. Married or single, parenting is a tough challenge. Parents don't always get the help they need, but they need all of the help they can get.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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