The United States government stands accused of playing a curious role: that of a marriage dating agency.
The accusations come as the administration of President George Bush prepares a rare piece of welfare spending on America's poor and unemployed: an initial $100 million to extol the virtues of marital life - usually to teenage girls.
It sounds innocuous, but has sparked outrage because the money is being taken from another poverty program for what critics call 'an ideological experiment with the poor' that will lead young women into potentially damaging, and even abusive, marriages.
As a result, the issue of marriage will dominate the debate over what to do with Bill Clinton's welfare reform package of 1996 - the controversial 'workfare' system whereby people were taken off welfare after a period and obliged to undergo work training.
The system is up for review by Congress, with the Bush administration adding its own aggressive promotion of married life.
The program is the handiwork of Dr Wade Horn, Assistant Secretary for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Horn, a 47-year-old child psychiatrist who has been married for 25 years, has long been associated with the conservative Right's promotion of marriage in social policy, initially with the administration of George Bush Sr., as Commissioner for Children, Youth and Families.
During the Clinton administrations he headed the National Fatherhood Initiative and advocated that government should give preference to married couples for welfare benefits and allocation of public housing.
He was forced to retract his position, under fire, upon confirmation in his present office.
The Clinton administration linked 'workfare' to the aim of cutting single parenthood and the 'maintenance of two-parent families'.
Bruce Reed, a domestic policy adviser under Clinton who devised the plan, told the New York Times: 'The theory behind the '96 law was that, by requiring work and ending welfare as a way of life, we could get government out of the business of enabling a culture of single parenthood. It took us a long time to get into this mess; it's going to take a long time to get out of it.'
Now Horn thinks it's time for a fresh drive for marriage in the welfare system, backed by the ideological Right and his own conservative department head, Health Secretary Tommy Thompson.
'We're going to support activities that help couples who choose marriage to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain a healthy marriage,' Horn says.
The $100m is taken from other poverty and teenage pregnancy education programs to promote marriage and offer counseling to couples planning to wed or already married.
Poverty and single parenthood are intricately entwined in America, which has the highest rate of teenage motherhood in the industrialized world (Britain is second). Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution in Washington says children of single parents are four times more likely to live below the poverty line than those from two-parent families.
On the other hand, birthrates among teenagers are down substantially and a rising proportion of poor children live in two-parent households. Some 50 per cent of children born out of wedlock have teenage mothers.
In response comes Horn's program, but beneath it cuts a political riptide. The marriage push is vigorously promoted by the Christian Right and think-tanks such as the Heritage Foundation.
Women's groups and many research agencies bitterly oppose the drift of welfare reforms, and the marriage drive in particular, saying that it is at best ill-directed and at worst will encourage young girls to marry unwisely or even become trapped in abusive marriages.
Sawhill - an official in the Clinton administration - says the issue is not marriage but that 'people are having babies at an early age before they're ready to have babies or get married.
'We should be trying to educate young women not to have children rather than trying to get them married.'
Resistance against the marriage program is headed by the National Organization of Women, America's largest main stream women's rights group. 'They are going to take $100m from an already under-funded poverty program for a social experiment on poor people,' its vice-president, Terry O'Neill, says.
She argues that the program not only deprives the US welfare fund - now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families - of resources but is potentially dangerous for young women.
'It aims to select couples who are married or want to get married for counseling But almost 50 per cent of the women who come into the TANR programs are suffering abuse from their men partners and trying to escape abusive relationships, not get married!
'If they are counseled on the virtues of marriage, it begins to fall into that notion of it being the woman's fault if she is being abused.
'If Wade Horn thinks marriage is wonderful, fine. But not if it's wonderful at the expense of those who don't happen to be married.'
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002