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How Conservatives Spent Your Dollars Pushing Marriage

The research is in on a high-priced Bush-era initiative to promote marriage to poor people. It’s time for a divorce.

The following article first appeared in  Mother Jones. For more great content from Mother Jones, sign up for free email updates  here.

With congressional Republicans beating the drum about profligate and wasteful  government spending, they may want to take a hard look at a federal program pushed by a host of top GOPers during the Bush-era and re-authorized in late 2010, as the Republican deficit craze took hold. Originally championed by lawmakers including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and current Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R), a  federal initiative to promote marriage as a cure for poverty dumped hundreds of millions of dollars into programs that either had no impact or a negative effect on the relationships of the couples who took part, according to recent research by the  Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). 

Launched during the Bush administration at the behest of evangelical Christian activists and with the aid of congressional Republicans,  the federal Healthy Marriage Initiative was designed to help low income couples put a little sizzle in their marriages and urge poor unmarried parents to tie the knot, in the hopes that marriage would enhance their finances and get them off the federal dole. Starting in 2006, millions of dollars were hastily distributed to grantees to further this poverty-reduction strategy. The money went to such enterprises as  "Laugh Your Way America," a program run by a non-Spanish speaking Wisconsin minister who used federal dollars to offer "Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage" seminars to Latinos. It funded Rabbi Stephen Baars, a British rabbi who'd been giving his trademarked  "Bliss" marriage seminars to upper middle class Jews in Montgomery County, Maryland for years. With the help of the federal government, he brought his program to inner city DC for the benefit of African-American single moms.


The marriage money was diverted from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program (formerly known as welfare), and much of it went to religious groups that went to work trying to combat the divorce rate in their communities by sponsoring date nights and romance workshops. In some cities, the local grantees used their federal funds to recruit professional athletes to make public service announcements touting the benefits of marriage. Women's groups were especially critical of the marriage initiative, largely because it was the baby of  Wade Horn, a controversial figure who Bush installed at HHS as the head of the Administration for Children and Families and the administration's official "marriage czar."

Before joining the Bush administration, Horn, a conservative psychologist, had helmed the NationalFatherhood Initiative, where he attacked what he called the "we hate marriage" elites and infuriated women's groups by defending the Southern Baptist Convention's proclamation that women should "submit" to their husbands' "servant leadership." Horn believed that federal poverty programs should be vehicles for marriage promotion, once proposing that the federal government  exclude unmarried people from anti-poverty programs like Head Start and from public housing. Horn's deputy was Chris Gersten (husband of former Bush Labor Secretary Linda Chavez), who implemented the program and who is a strong believer in the value of "relationship education" in combatting the social scourge of the disintegrating traditional family.

"A middle class couple with $100,000 a year that's having trouble in their marriage, they can go out and spend $200 or $300 or $400 to get some classes that help them," he explains. "But a poor couple isn't going to spend the rent money on relationship classes."

Studies show that relationship classes can be helpful for white, middle-class couples, but when the federal government started dumping million of poverty dollars into marriage education, there was virtually no research on how such programs would fare with poor, inner city single moms. Now, though, the data is in, and it doesn't look good for proponents of taxpayer funded marriage education . This month, HHS released the results of several years of research about the performance of the marriage programs, and it indicates that the Bush-era effort to encourage Americans (straight ones, at least) to walk down the aisle, has been a serious flop.

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