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Welfare to Work to Marriage

07/12/02 12:00AM By Cheryl Hanna
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(Host) President Bush recently announced a new approach to welfare policy, and commentator Cheryl Hanna has some thoughts on where the president s plan falls short.

(Hanna) These days, the president is on a crusade of sorts to promote marriage among the poor. Citing studies that show children who grow up in married households are less likely to live in poverty, the administration is now asking Congress for over $100 million to encourage people in welfare-to-work programs not only to find a job, but also to find a spouse.

The money won't be used to provide people below a certain income a free membership at Match.com, or government-subsidized babysitters for that all-important first date. Rather, the money would fund clinics to provide pre-wedding counseling and courses in parenthood. Sort of like a Dr. Phil approach to welfare policy, except that money couldn't be used to discuss any form of birth control, expect abstinence.

No one seems happier about the president's plan than former Vice President Dan Quayle, of "Shame on Murphy Brown" fame. In a recent speech to the National Press Club, he was thrilled about Bush's initiative. At the same time, he credited hard rocker and MTV reality star Ozzy Osbourne - you know, the self-proclaimed prince of darkness - with being a positive example of the virtues of married life.

Dan Quayle, extolling the virtues of Ozzy Osbourne, captures perfectly a debate over family policy that to me seems not only misguided but at times almost absurd. Now, let me be clear. I firmly support policies that promote responsible fatherhood because there's no question that a positive male role model can vastly improve a child's life. But here's the catch: Two recent studies found that stricter welfare-to-work requirements imposed by this administration have had the unintended consequence of significantly reducing the likelihood that a single mom transitioning from welfare to work will marry.

Why? First, many working moms just don't have the time or energy to nurture a relationship. Second, and more importantly, with more income and growing self-reliance, many women would rather wait for Mr. Right than marry Mr. He'll Do for Now.

The biggest problem with Bush's plan is that it includes nothing to promote employment opportunities for low-income men, and working moms won't marry someone who might drain their already limited resources. Many men no longer have the kinds of jobs that can support families. In recent years, we've shifted our priorities. We'd rather use our resources to build prisons than to maintain a strong community college system, and we've negotiated trade deals that sent many of our more lucrative manufacturing jobs overseas.

Low-income men are becoming increasingly marginalized in this global marketplace. They need more than a two-hour lecture on how to "just say no." They need good, stable, well paying jobs with health benefits.

It's tempting to blame Hollywood for our supposed decline in family values. But, in the end, if we really want to move people from welfare to work to marriage with the goal of helping children, instead of single's night at the community health center, let's start with a viable living wage for everyone.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.
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