By Jean Hardisty
(Click here to listen to a Public Service Announcement distributed by American Forum, denouncing marriage promotion as an approach to fight poverty.)
Romance and marriage proposals are in the air on Valentine's Day. Unfortunately, cupid isn’t the only matchmaker hard at work this season. An increasing number of low-income women find themselves pushed to the altar -- not by their relations or suitors, but by the federal government.
“The Department of Health and Human Services is not going to run a dating service,” declared Wade Horn in the early days of the George W. Bush administration. But Horn, a leader of the rightist “fatherhood movement” during the 1990s, introduced policies promoting marriage as a cure for poverty while running HHS’ Administration for Children and Families from 2001 to 2007. Despite his “dating service” denial, Horn saw to it that government grants powered a multimillion-dollar marriage industry made up of secular and faith-based groups which encourage low-income women -- especially welfare recipients -- to marry and bring a father into their families. Needless to say, the administration applies only the most narrow and traditional definition of “family”.
Grants made to marriage promotion programs have ballooned while at the same time federal benefits have been cut for all low-income families and those unable to meet their own needs
The scale of government funding for this inane and completely unproven bit of social experimentation is alarming. The 2005 Deficit Reduction Act allocated $100 million annually for marriage promotion programs and $50 million for fatherhood programs over fiscal years 2006 - 2010, or a total of $750 million. The administration’s Charitable Choice Fund -- which in 2004 had a budget of $2 billion -- also makes grants to promote marriage, as does its $30 million Compassion Capital Fund. Many of these millions serve to fuel the expansion of conservative evangelical organizations.
Why is HHS in the marriage business? The conservatives who run administration policy falsely imply that welfare recipients are young African American women of loose sexual morals, who can be saved from their poverty and sin only through the restoration of the traditional father-headed nuclear family. Given the inaccurate and offensive stereotypes that undergird these policies, it should perhaps come as no surprise that there is no solid evidence from the social sciences that marriage results in a higher income for poor women. Indeed, contrary to the administration’s assumptions, marriage is not a magic bullet that will raise a low-income woman and her children out of poverty. Given the individual circumstances of their lives, marriage may actually be an unwise choice for many poor women. That is why most of the programs funded by government grants fail to produce the desired results; they are based on ideology rather than sound social policy.
When it comes to Bush marriage promotion programs, reducing poverty is just a smokescreen for constructing conservative -- and anti-feminist -- family structures. The administration has worked hard to eliminate those few anti-poverty programs that remain standing after the conservative revolution that began with Ronald Reagan. Proven methods, such as subsidized housing, education stipends, health care, day care, and job training programs, have all been cut under the Bush administration. Even the federal implementation of the Violence Against Women Act would be cut by $120 million under President George W. Bush’s 2009 budget proposal.
Marriage is a highly personal decision, not the business of government. Would middle class women and men tolerate this kind of government interference in their personal lives? Not for a minute. Do you solemnly swear to resist this illegitimate intrusion into the intimate lives of our fellow citizens? I do.
Hardisty, a political scientist, is senior scholar at The Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, President Emerita of Political Research Associates, and author of PRA’s new report, Pushed to the Altar: The Right Wing Roots of Marriage Promotion.