Washington Times

Published 9/16/2002

Welfare promotes marriage

Cheryl Wetzstein
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Special Report

Darrin and Valerie Chandler were struggling financially and thinking about ending their nine-year marriage when they reluctantly attended a government-funded marriage-education workshop near Phoenix this summer.

The workshop turned their relationship around, they said.

"We're both stubborn people," said Mrs. Chandler. "We even went into the program thinking, 'Yeah right, we'll go, but for all we've been through, this probably isn't going to help us.'"

But the weekend class "has been a total blessing," said Mr. Chandler, adding that with the communication skills he and his wife learned, "we've been pulling ourselves out slowly" from their debts.

The Chandlers are one of 517 Arizona couples who have taken marriage-education classes paid for by funds from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare program. The program, created in the landmark 1996 welfare reform law, has several goals, including "promoting job preparation, work and marriage" and to "encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families."

The Chandlers' positive experience was echoed in most of the dozens of interviews conducted over the past year with couples, educators, welfare caseworkers and welfare recipients in Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia, where TANF funds are being used to promote or support marriage.

In Arizona, where more than $1 million in TANF funds has been spent on marriage-education classes, many couples share the views of Scott Mielke, who attended classes in Flagstaff with his wife Zona. "I think if the federal government is going to do something about families, it needs to be proactive like this," he said.

In Oklahoma, around $1.8 million in TANF funds have been spent on a wide-ranging "marriage initiative," including communication-skills classes with TANF recipients. "I can see things from my mate's point of view," said one Oklahoma welfare mother who attended such a course.

"I should find the right person and take my time not to rush into a dead end," concluded another mother.

In West Virginia, the state has spent $12.8 million to give 128,497 married couples an extra $100 a month in their welfare checks. "It was like a blessing in disguise. That $100 makes so much difference," said Darren Butler, 30, whose family went on welfare last year when both he and his wife lost their full-time jobs.

Law up for reauthorization

The 1996 welfare law, which expires Sept. 30, is now up for reauthorization, and the Bush administration and its allies in Congress want to see more states get involved in promoting healthy marriages.

"My administration will give unprecedented support to strengthening marriages," President Bush said in February, when he unveiled a proposal to allocate up to $300 million a year in TANF funds for pro-marriage grants. "Strong marriages and stable families are incredibly good for children. And stable families should be the central goal of American welfare policy," he said.

But liberals and feminist groups reject the idea of government-funded support to bolster marriages.

"It's a hare-brained scheme as a poverty-reduction strategy," Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, said at a welfare briefing earlier this year.

"If government were to encourage or coerce welfare couples to get married, it could endanger the lives of women and children" since 60 percent of women on welfare have suffered from domestic violence, said Rep. Pete Stark, California Democrat, who this year introduced a resolution saying that the government should not be involved in personal decisions about marriage.

"The purpose of welfare is to help the poorest people move out of poverty and into self-sufficiency," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women.

"To make 'finding a man' the administration-approved ticket out of poverty is not just an insulting throwback, it's terrible public policy," she said, adding that "not a single dime" should be diverted from child care, transportation and other critical welfare services.

In several states, efforts to use TANF funds to promote marriage have been successfully challenged by opponents.

In the late 1990s, Wisconsin lawmakers allocated $210,000 in TANF funds to hire a "marriage policy coordinator" to assist members of the clergy in adopting community marriage standards.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sued Wisconsin, saying its "marriage meddlers" law violated the separation of church and state. In May 2000, a judge agreed with the foundation and the $210,000 marriage project "never went anywhere," said a spokesman in the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services.

TANF-funded marriage-promotion plans have also died in Colorado, Iowa, Mississippi, New Mexico and Washington.

Congress, however, has warmed to the marriage-promotion idea: The House welfare bill, passed in May, includes the Bush administration's annual $300 million proposal for pro-marriage projects, while a Senate Finance Committee bill offers a smaller pot of money for an array of services that include marriage education.

The Senate is expected to take up welfare reform this month , but it's not clear whether there's enough time to pass a bill by Sept. 30. If differences cannot be worked out, Congress is likely to pass a measure to continue the current law for another year, congressional aides say.

Taking up the challenge

Meanwhile, Arizona and Oklahoma have attracted attention with their ambitious TANF-funded marriage projects.

In 2000, the Arizona legislature set aside around $1.1 million in TANF funds to subsidize marriage-skills seminars and create a booklet on marriage and family-related issues.

The funding a fraction of the $17 million originally sought is an important first step, said Arizona State Rep. Mark Anderson, a leading sponsor of the marriage legislation. "The breaking down of a marriage, or even existing in a marriage wracked by conflict and violence, is the essential source of a host of social problems. It's time to move in the direction of prevention."

Last summer, the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) issued grants ranging from $6,720 to $231,050 to 11 contractors to offer marriage education to couples. A second round of grants to four contractors was made recently.

As part of the deal, the state pays 85 percent of class costs for couples, unless they are low-income and have children, in which case the state pays a voucher for 100 percent of the costs.

To date, 517 couples have taken classes, including 26 who came on a voucher, said DES spokesman Ben Levine.

Many Arizona couples said in interviews that they benefited from the classes.

Bill Jenney and his second wife, Vanessa, paid $60 to attend Bob Tures' eight-session Couples Workshop in Flagstaff in order to meet a premarital requirement of her church. To his surprise, the experience "was real good."

"It wasn't an emotional strip-search. They weren't there to solve anybody's problems. They were just there to teach people how to talk to each other," Mr. Jenney said.

When asked if this was a good use of welfare funds, Mr. Jenney said: "I'm basically a libertarian and think the least government is the best government, but in this case, I can see how a lot of people can really benefit from this class." Furthermore, he said, the government funding "gets people in."

The classes are a valuable use of TANF funds because "money runs out, but education you are able to keep forever," Mrs. Jenney said.

"My mom was married four times and every time she remarried, she married someone worse than before," Mrs. Jenney said. "If my mother had had marriage education, she could have changed and things could have changed for us. It would have been a wonderful experience if she had chosen a healthy relationship."

Mr. Chandler, who attended the faith-based National Association of Marriage Enhancement (NAME) workshop near Phoenix, said that classes might have helped his parents as well.

"I grew up, briefly, in a welfare house and when my parents broke up, I can remember the bickering that went on," he said. "I think my father would have been so much more of a man if he had had a chance" to get marriage education. "And my mother it would have helped her, too."

Mrs. Chandler said it was important to have the option of attending a faith-based program like NAME. Other education programs might offer the "same ideas and concepts," she said, "but I think if I had gone to a [secular] program, we probably would have followed through with the splitting up."

Strengthening families

Most of the Arizona couples that were interviewed dismissed the idea that government-funded marriage-education classes might coerce poor women to marry abusive men.

"That sounds pretty fatalistic and negative," said Kip Moyer, a pharmaceutical sales representative who attended the Couples Workshop with his fiancee to "answer some questions we had, as a new couple starting out." The workshops are voluntary, said Mr. Moyer, "and I think anything we can do to strengthen couples and families can only help the fabric of our country."

The workshops may actually help women escape abusive relationships, said Kristi Baty of Flagstaff, who has attended the Couples Workshshop in Flagstaff in order to meet a premarital requirement of her church. To his surprise, the experience "was real good."

"It wasn't an emotional strip-search. They weren't there to solve anybody's problems. They were just there to teach people how to talk to each other," Mr. Jenney said.

When asked if this was a good use of welfare funds, Mr. Jenney said: "I'm basically a libertarian and think the least government is the best government, but in this case, I can see how a lot of people can really benefit from this class." Furthermore, he said, the government funding "gets people in."

The classes are a valuable use of TANF funds because "money runs out, but education you are able to keep forever," Mrs. Jenney said.

"My mom was married four times and every time she remarried, she married someone worse than before," Mrs. Jenney said. "If my mother had had marriage education, she could have changed and things could have changed for us. It would have been a wonderful experience if she had chosen a healthy relationship."

Mr. Chandler, who attended the faith-based National Association of Marriage Enhancement (NAME) workshop near Phoenix, said that classes might have helped his parents as well.

"I grew up, briefly, in a welfare house and when my parents broke up, I can remember the bickering that went on," he said. "I think my father would have been so much more of a man if he had had a chance" to get marriage education. "And my mother it would have helped her, too."

Mrs. Chandler said it was important to have the option of attending a faith-based program like NAME. Other education programs might offer the "same ideas and concepts," she said, "but I think if I had gone to a [secular] program, we probably would have followed through with the splitting up."

Strengthening families

Most of the Arizona couples that were interviewed dismissed the idea that government-funded marriage-education classes might coerce poor women to marry abusive men.

"That sounds pretty fatalistic and negative," said Kip Moyer, a pharmaceutical sales representative who attended the Couples Workshop with his fiancee to "answer some questions we had, as a new couple starting out." The workshops are voluntary, said Mr. Moyer, "and I think anything we can do to strengthen couples and families can only help the fabric of our country."

The workshops may actually help women escape abusive relationships, said Kristi Baty of Flagstaff, who has attended the Couples Workshop with her husband and now refers some of her clients in her parenting class to it.

If a woman is in a supportive situation and sees how other couples talk with each other, she may see more clearly what she's up against "and she may feel empowered to make a better choice," said Mrs. Baty. "I think education always provides power."

In Jennifer Vaughan's case, the TANF-funded FranklinCovey Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families workshop she attended in April with her boyfriend has helped her rethink her relationship.

There were no serious problems in their relationship when she made the appointment to go to the workshop, but by the time they went, she decided to leave her partner. "It just wasn't coming together after a few years and I was frustrated, at the end of my rope," said Mrs. Vaughan, adding that both she and her boyfriend have been divorced in previous marriages.

The couple went their separate ways after the workshop, but a few weeks later, "Randy called and said, 'Well, I learned a lot about myself and I would like to talk with you about our relationship again,'" she said. They are now reconsidering a future together, using a FranklinCovey workbook they got from the seminar. "It is just amazing," she said. "There's this feeling of getting onto the same page."

Still, not everyone thinks TANF money should be used for workshops. Alice Ferris, who attended a Couples Workshop with her husband a few years ago, personally enjoyed the experience. "But if the end goal is to reduce the number of families on welfare, I'm not sure this is the way to do it," she said.

In Oklahoma, $1.8 million in TANF funds have been spent on a far-reaching Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, started by Gov. Frank Keating in 1999.

By 2010 the initiative seeks to reduce Oklahoma's divorce rate by one-third, including outreach to businesses, churches and faith-based community groups, educators, service providers and the media. More than 137 workshops have been held through the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) that seeks to enhance communication skills, and 1,600 people including 350 newly minted PREP trainers have taken the classes.

TANF families can connect to the pro-marriage initiative by taking free PREP classes offered through the Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension Service.

"I'm excited about [teaching PREP] because I think some of the skills people lack in marriage are taught in this class, and hopefully, they can avoid getting to the point where they seek a divorce," said Ranel Lasley, who has taught five PREP classes in the last year, mostly with TANF mothers.

"Overall, their reactions have been positive," said Mrs. Lasley. "People say, 'Oh, I wish I had known this early on in my relationship.'"

"I think the people who work with the TANF clients see a lot of merit because it gives them real skills to use," said Cindy Griffith, who has also taught several PREP courses to TANF mothers.

Most TANF mothers who could not be reached directly for comment reported positive new insights on evaluation forms.

"Instead of yelling and interrupting, I've learned to listen and take turns [talking]," wrote one mother. "I think I can overcome thinking just one person is right. I can understand where the other person is coming from," wrote another.

In June, Oklahoma State University released a study of 2,323 Oklahoma residents concerning the marriage initiative. It found that, of the respondents who had ever been on welfare, 72 percent would "consider using relationship education to strengthen" their relationship.

This rings true in Mrs. Griffith's experience with TANF mothers. "Yes, they buy in," she said. "With some audiences, you have to build a little trust. But after that, they are pretty much receptive, at least to parts of it."

Meanwhile, in West Virginia, state lawmakers decided two years ago to give married couples on welfare an extra $100 in their monthly welfare check. The policy has been called a "marriage incentive" to reward families for staying together, or a "marriage rebate" because it offsets any tax penalties the couples might face.

Darren and Terri Butler, who have been married for four years and have three children, don't quibble over whether the money is an incentive or a rebate. All they know is, it translates into an extra $100 a month in much needed family revenue.

Asked whether a state should pay for marriage classes or provide bigger checks, Mrs. Butler said: "I think it makes a difference for couples to get the money. We are members of a church. If we need anything like [marriage education], that's what our reverend is for."

"We have enough books to read," added Mr. Butler.

Earlier this year, West Virginia officials, faced with welfare budget deficits, debated whether to end the $100-a-month policy. Recently, the state decided to keep the policy.

Rita M. Dobrich, an official with the state's Office of Family Support, said there have been cases in which the mother married while on assistance; "however, we do not know how many."

Breakups also occur. One West Virginia couple interviewed in February spoke highly of the bonus. "It's wonderful that they promote marriage like that," the young wife said.

But the couple have since separated, according to their caseworker. As a result, their welfare check fell from $660 a month to $560.

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