Just Get Married!

Bells will be ringing as a new pro-marriage, anti-poverty plan takes root in Texas

Over time, she grew to resent her responsibility, which is why she was so attracted to Martinez. He was fun-loving and irresponsible. "I just needed someone to treat me nice," she says. But when she became pregnant, Martinez turned unkind and told her no baby was going to make him change. "I had a lot of friends who had kids and didn't care," he says. He did cut down on the number of girlfriends in his life, but nothing made him want to settle down: not getting busted, not the drive-by murder of his cousin in Dallas. Not even the birth of Isaiah.

After dropping out of school, Amador prepared to raise her baby alone. It was at the hospital where she was introduced to Healthy Families of San Angelo, one of 12 "demonstration sites" for the Texas Fragile Families Initiative, which offers technical assistance and evaluations for programs working with low-income families and fathers.

Although Amador says "I didn't want anybody in my business," particularly since she had to commit to the program for five years, she quickly saw its value. "My caseworker would make home visits and just hold my baby for 30 minutes so I could take a shower." Martinez, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with the program. "I just thought they were cops."

Dallas marriage therapist Kelly Simpson hopes to spearhead the "Texas initiative," a broad-based Dallas effort to promote marriage and strengthen relationships by offering classes such as those she developed for the Army.
Mark Graham
Dallas marriage therapist Kelly Simpson hopes to spearhead the "Texas initiative," a broad-based Dallas effort to promote marriage and strengthen relationships by offering classes such as those she developed for the Army.
The pro-marriage movement found its champion in President George W. Bush, whose administration sees marriage as a way to fight poverty.
John Anderson
The pro-marriage movement found its champion in President George W. Bush, whose administration sees marriage as a way to fight poverty.

Texas Fragile Families grounds much of its work on studies that debunk the notion that the failure of the poor to marry is a character flaw or moral failure. This research offers persuasive evidence that most unmarried parents not only feel that marriage will be better for their children, but they also expect they will likely marry each other. The problem is, most never do. Because more than half of the mothers are living with the fathers when their children are born, and many fathers are also providing financial support, the birth of the child may provide a window of opportunity--a magic moment, as marriage advocates like to call it--when it might be fortuitous to intervene.

But this is where the Bush administration splits with many poverty rights groups. The Bush agenda sees marriage as a means of lifting people out of poverty and would dedicate $300 million in federal welfare funds each year for the next five years primarily to fund marriage education projects and research. Groups such as Fragile Families worry that limited welfare dollars are being squandered on untested projects that neither cure poverty nor stabilize families.

Policy analyst Theodora Ooms tends to disagree. "Clearly, two poor people can be just as poor if they are together," she says. "But the legal commitment of marriage seems to make a difference in generating wealth. People behave differently when they are married. Husbands work harder; people save for their futures together. Men start drinking less. And there is recent research that says marriage also brings these benefits to low-income people."

But to hold out marriage education as a solution to poverty seems naïve at best and pulls money and focus away from proven methods of eliminating poverty: education, job training, child care. Some marriage-promotion initiatives tacitly endorsed by the feds such as West Virginia's program, which offers an extra $100 a month to a family on welfare if the mom marries the father of her children, seem downright dangerous. "The line between government encouragement and coercion is indistinguishable, particularly when the message is targeted against the poorest of the poor," says Sherry Leiwant, a senior staff attorney at the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund. "And when that message is that marriage will redeem a woman from poverty rather than her efforts, it's not only patriarchic, but it also encourages women to enter and remain in abusive relationships."

More benign by comparison is legislation pending in the Texas House, which seeks to draw down federal dollars for a "Healthy Marriage Development Program." Classes offered for welfare recipients may include both pre- and post-marriage counseling, parenting and "active lifestyle skills." The bill's sponsor, Representative Arlene Wohlgemuth, a social conservative from Burleson, who was unavailable for comment, offers up a glimpse of the bill's ideological bent by specifically listing course subjects such as "honoring your spouse" and "abstinence for all unmarried persons, including abstinence for persons who have previously been married." Although the idea of preaching celibacy to the sexually active seems as ludicrous as it does untimely, the extra $20- to $60-a-month stipend welfare moms might receive for taking the courses could boost class participation.

The Texas Fragile Families Initiative doesn't believe it has a shot at federal funding because it doesn't promote marriage per se. Rather, it directs its efforts toward child well-being and making low-income men in particular more marriageable. "Marriageability means increasing the marriage stock of low-income men and women," says Carlos Ramo, workforce development coordinator for the Texas Fragile Families Initiative. "We hope to do this by encouraging education and employment as well as building parenting and relationship skills." Few women rich or poor would view felons, drug addicts and immature, unemployable dads as good prospects. Small wonder they choose to pass on that magic moment.

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