Star Tribune (Minneapolis - St. Paul)

Published Monday, August 13, 2001

All is not bliss in fight over matrimony

Jessica Thompson and Rob Hotakainen / Star Tribune

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- West Virginia made history with a change in its welfare system last year, becoming the first state to provide a cash bonus as an incentive for marriage: A single mother who marries the biological father of her child gets an extra $100 per month.

Wade Horn, President Bush's assistant secretary for family support, said that Congress should run with the idea: He recently wrote that government "needs to show that it values marriage by rewarding those who choose it." He also cited a proposal by the Heritage Foundation to give women "at high risk" of having out-of-wedlock births $5,000 over five years if they wait until they're married to have their first child, then stay married.

Critics say these marriage bonuses could be problematic for some women, who might be forced to stay in an abusive relationship just to pay their bills.

"For some of these women, staying in a marriage means they will lose their lives," said Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., who opposed Horn's confirmation when it was approved last month.

The skirmish over Horn's appointment is the latest evidence that all is not bliss in the world of matrimony. At a time when married couples make up barely half of all American households, supporters of the so-called "marriage movement" are looking to government for help in propping up the state of marriage, and Horn's record would appear to make him an ally.

In his new job in the Department of Health and Human Services, Horn will have authority over federal welfare, child care, foster care and adoption programs.

His supporters and those who back the marriage movement say that children who grow up without a father present are far more likely to commit crime, have promiscuous sex, drop out of school and commit suicide.

Horn's detractors fear that he will discriminate against single parent-families, gay parents and people who don't want to marry.

Horn, the former president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, said he will do nothing to disadvantage nontraditional families. Instead, he said, his goal will be to remove "disincentives" to marriage.

"I want as many kids as possible to grow up with a loving father as well as a loving mother," Horn said in an interview. "With two incomes you're less likely to be poor, which would help out kids."

In Minnesota, Horn's appointment drew mixed reviews.

Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, supported the appointment, saying marriage must be "more front and center in consideration of policy."

Jill Pearson-Wood, president of the Minnesota National Organization for Women (NOW), called Horn's appointment an example of politicians "trying to legislate morality."

"It sounds like married couples would move to the front of the line for public assistance and, if there's anything left over, it would go to [single-parent] families," she said.

More than 100 activist groups, including the national chapter of NOW, signed a letter opposing Horn's confirmation.

But for many, Horn's appointment has not been an issue. Republican members of the Minnesota congressional delegation -- Reps. Jim Ramstad, Gil Gutknecht and Mark Kennedy -- all declined to comment or said they had no position on the appointment.

Wellstone was the only senator to oppose Horn's confirmation, which was approved on a voice vote; supporters included Sen. Mark Dayton, D-Minn. Of the six senators who spoke on Horn's behalf, five were Democrats, including Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who said: "I know of no more decent, more compassionate individual."

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., defended Horn, saying: "I would think that working towards strengthening marriage in our country ... would be regarded as a positive qualification, not grounds for criticism."

States act

Like West Virginia, many other states have taken marriage matters into their own hands.

In Florida, marriage skills courses are an obligatory part of high school curriculums. In Oklahoma, Gov. Frank Keating pledged to cut the state's divorce rate by one-third by the year 2010. He earmarked $10 million for pro-marriage initiatives.

Couples in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Arizona can now opt for a "covenant marriage," in which they pledge to stay married for life and renounce their legal right to a no-fault divorce.

The Minnesota Legislature passed a bill this year that gives couples who take a 12-hour marriage training course a $50 cut in marriage license fees.

"We have an interest in the success of marriages and families in our state because those that are troubled cost the state in terms of not only dollars, but in many other ways," said state Rep. Elaine Harder, R-Jackson, the bill's sponsor.

'Healthy marriages'

Bush, speaking in June at the National Summit on Fatherhood in Washington, D.C., said: "We must never forget children need their dads, and when they're absent, something is lost."

Bush proposed spending $60 million on grants for faith-and community-based organizations that help unemployed or low-income fathers and their families avoid or leave welfare, along with programs that teach successful parenting.

The movement to promote marriage has been a bipartisan effort. It had support in the Clinton White House and has gained support among groups such as the Urban League, which has focused on strengthening the role of fathers in black communities.

In his published writings, Horn has called the loss of responsible fatherhood "the greatest social tragedy of the last 30 years." At one point, he advocated giving preference to married couples in the distribution of government benefits that are in limited supply, such as slots in public housing and Head Start. But he said he has backed off the idea: no longer think it makes sense to do it."

In an article published in June, Horn wrote that Congress should implement incentives for marriage. He wrote that Congress could require states to follow West Virginia's lead in providing marriage bonuses, but a spokeswoman said that he has no plans to make a formal proposal to Congress.

"He's not going to tell the Congress what they should do," said Pamela Carter, a spokeswoman for Horn's department.

Wellstone focused on Horn's support of marriage bonuses when he gave a speech on the Senate floor opposing Horn's confirmation.

Wellstone, who has been married for 37 years, called his marriage "the best thing that ever could have happened to me." But he cited his wife Sheila's work on domestic-violence issues and said "there is no doubt in my mind" that providing marriage bonuses to women will only result in more domestic violence.

"If a low-income woman is faced with a choice of receiving $1,000 a year, especially a woman who with her children is living in extreme poverty, or leaving a situation where she has been abused, what is she likely to do?" Wellstone asked.

Responding to Wellstone's concerns, Horn said: "I would never advocate any policy that would keep a woman in an abusive relationship. ... When we talk about promoting marriage, we are talking about promoting healthy marriages."

-- Jessica Thompson is at intern@mcclatchydc.com.

-- Rob Hotakainen is at rhotakainen@mcclatchydc.com.

© Copyright 2001 Star Tribune.