Kids Left Out of Bush's 'Wedding Welfare'
Published on Wednesday, March 27, 2002 in the Boston Globe
Kids Left Out of Bush's 'Wedding Welfare'
by Robert Kuttner
WHEN THE WELFARE reform program of 1996 comes up for renewal later this year, it will have a new emphasis - wedding bells. The Bush administration wants to spend $300 million of scarce welfare funds to encourage marriage and another $135 million promoting premarital chastity.

Several governors have already jumped the (shot)gun with state programs to promote marriage, not just for welfare recipients but for everyone. Some conservatives, like Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, would go further and provide $4,000 bounties for poor people who marry.

In the conservative story, poverty reflects sexual permissiveness and the breakdown of traditional sex roles, in which father is the good provider and mother keeper of hearth and nurturer of the young. Most Americans no longer buy that view of marriage, but the conservative story is beguiling because it contains a germ of truth. Early promiscuity, certainly, is not good for young teenagers, and out-of-wedlock teen births usually produce at-risk kids.

But the rest of the administration story, seconded by the religious right, is at war not just with out-of-wedlock birth but with modern life and the emancipation of women. And where children are concerned the right finds itself on both sides of its own argument.

After all, the whole point of this new focus on marriage is stable family formation and healthy children. Few care whether the childless marry. Remarkably, however, the one group almost entirely excluded from the administration program is kids.

With no sense of contradiction, the welfare reformers demand that single mothers work or lose all benefits - so much for Mom staying home. But missing from the equation is high quality childcare, so necessary to reconcile working motherhood, sane family life, and healthy children, whether for single moms or working couples.

Why is the childcare link missing? Because of conservative ideology: socially provided childcare violates ''traditional values'' and costs public money.

Scholarly assessments of the welfare reform experiment reveal a bitter paradox: The more that single mothers ''succeed'' by getting off welfare and staying in low-wage employment, the more their unsupervised teenage children are placed at risk.

Why, then, do Bush Family Values enjoy any political support outside the screwball far right? For one thing, marriage is popular. Most Americans would love to be in happy marriages. Lesbians and gays are battling to join the club. Surveys show that even welfare mothers, who have generally had wretched experiences with unreliable men, still hope to meet Prince Charming.

And most Americans believe, seconded by social science research, that it's good for kids to grow up with their natural mother and father, other things being equal. It's also true, statistically, that married people and their children tend to be better off economically.

But these ''facts'' explain everything and nothing. It's not just that being married makes you less likely to be poor; being poor makes it harder to have a successful marriage. A low-income single mom, even if Uncle Sam marries her off to similar man, is not a great candidate to wind up in an economically and emotionally secure marriage.

As Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution observes, rather than promoting marriage, we should work to reduce careless teen pregnancies. Parents who are older and who are married, she notes, are more likely to be better parents and to have successful marriages.

So if the administration were serious about promoting healthy marriages and flourishing children (and not just throwing a steak to the religious right), it would be pushing several other policies - jobs that paid living wages, high quality child care, paid parental leaves, sex education that includes birth control as well as early teen abstinence, and generous treatment of children who happen to be born to single parents.

Won't this just reward single parenthood? In Norway, public policy provides all of these supports, yet a higher percentage of kids grow up with both their parents, more mothers are in paid work, and far fewer families and children are poor.

But policies such as these accept the realities of modern family life and they challenge archaic notions of sex roles and traditional values beloved by the religious right. They also cost tax dollars that were just given away to multimillionaires.

Few Americans buy the marriage-as-panacea myth, especially when yoked to Victorian conceptions of womenhood and stripped of child care supports. But once again, conservatives seem to have out-organized liberals who have both facts and public opinion on their side. Is there a real family movement waiting to be born?

Robert Kuttner's s co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.

© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company