Let them eat wedding cake

July 13, 2004|By Barbara Ehrenreich

NEW YORK - Commitment isn't easy for guys - we all know that - but the Bush administration is taking the traditional male ambivalence about marriage to giddy new heights.

On the one hand, it wants to ban gays from marrying, through a constitutional amendment that the Senate will vote on this week.

On the other hand, it's been avidly promoting marriage among poor women - the straight ones, anyway.

Opponents of gay marriage claim that there is some consistency here, in that gay marriages must be stopped before they undermine the straight ones. How the married gays will go about wrecking heterosexual marriages is not entirely clear: by moving in next-door, inviting themselves over and doing a devastating critique of the interior decorating?

It is equally unclear how marriage will cure poor women's No. 1 problem, which is poverty - unless, of course, the plan is to draft CEOs to marry recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). Left to themselves, most women end up marrying men of the same social class as their own, meaning - in the case of poverty-stricken women - blue-collar men.

But that demographic group has seen a tragic decline in earnings in the last couple of decades. So I have been endeavoring to calculate just how many blue-collar men a TANF recipient needs to marry to lift her family out of poverty.

The answer turns out to be about 2.3, which is, strangely enough, illegal.

Seeking clarity, I called the administration's top marriage maven, Wade F. Horn at the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS is not "promoting" marriage, he told me, just providing "marriage education" for interested couples of limited means. The poor aren't being singled out for any insidious reason, he insisted; this is just a service they might otherwise lack.

It could have been Pilates training or courses in orchid cultivation, was the implication, but for now it's marriage education. As recently as 2001, however, Mr. Horn was proposing that the administration "show it values marriage by rewarding those who choose it" with cash "marriage bonuses."

When I suggested that - with food pantries maxing out and shelters overflowing across the nation - poor women might have other priorities, Mr. Horn snapped back: "It's fine for you to make the decision on what low-income couples need."

Silly old social-engineering-type liberal that I am, I had actually doubted that marriage education might be helpful to couples doomed to spend their married lives on separate cots in the shelter.

Besides, Mr. Horn went on, low-income people are eager for government-sponsored marriage education.

Lisalyn Jacobs, who tracks TANF marriage policy at the women's group Legal Momentum, told me she finds it "obscene" that, in the face of coming cuts in housing subsidies and other services, HHS is planning to spend any money at all on marriage, much less the $200 million now proposed. But she may be unaware, as I am, of the mobs of poor women who picket HHS daily, chanting: "What do we want? Marriage education! When do we want it? Now!"

If marriage were a cure for poverty, I'd be the first to demand that HHS spring for the champagne and bridesmaids' dresses. But as Mr. Horn acknowledged to me, there is no evidence to that effect. Married couples are on average more prosperous than single mothers, but that doesn't mean marriage will lift the existing single mothers out of poverty.

So what's the point of the administration's marriage meddling? Ms. Jacobs thinks that the administration's mixed signals on marriage - OK for paupers, a no-no for gays - are part of the conservative effort to "change the subject to marriage." From, for example, Iraq.

But this may be too cynical an explanation. Quite possibly, the administration wants to ban gay marriage so that gay men can be drafted to marry TANF recipients. Think of all the problems that would solve - and, if the Queer Eye for the Straight Guy stereotype holds true, how tastefully appointed those shelters will become.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a columnist for The New York Times.

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