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Lose That Poor Citizen Guilt: Get Married!

“In the contemporary United States it is almost always the people at the bottom of the virtue/value scale -- the adult poor, the non-white, the unmarried, the non-heterosexual, and the nonreproductive -- who are said to be creating the crisis that is mobilizing the mainstream public sphere to fight the good fight on behalf of normal national culture, while those in power are left relatively immune.” -- Lauren Berlant

“Many are learning it is more rewarding to be a responsible citizen than a welfare recipient; it is better to be a breadwinner respected by your family.” -- George W. Bush

In her 1997 book The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, cultural theorist Lauren Berlant argues that U.S. political rhetorics and policies during the 1980s and 1990s promoted an ideal version of citizenship that was directly related to one’s private acts.

In one essay, Berlant suggests that in this era the “ideal citizen” is one whose private life conforms with a collective vision (or fantasy) of an ideal nation -- one in which citizens are married and reproductive and support the system by becoming workers and consumers. Political agency in this context is expressed through one’s participation in “normal” familial life. Those who deviate from this norm are accused of threatening the stability and integrity of the collective ideal and, as such, are demonized.

While Berlant’s argument was presented before President Bush took office, it’s applicable to the contemporary political climate. Within the course of one week, for example, Salon published articles dealing with the government’s attempt to obtain booksellers’ records of individual purchases and Attorney General John Ashcroft’s interest in an anti-porn crusade that was set aside after the events of Sept. 11. These reports gave Berlant fans two current examples of the way in which the political and the personal have become, in some perspectives, interchangeable: One’s private actions (the books one reads, the porn one watches) are indicative of one’s status as a citizen.

The issue that best reflects Berlant’s argument, however, is the emphasis on state and federal efforts to encourage, through funding allocated for governmental programs and individual incentives, single welfare mothers to marry the fathers of their children. Consider that in West Virginia, a couple’s welfare benefits are augmented if they wed, while the state has reduced the welfare benefits cohabitating non-married adults receive by 25 percent. Arizona has used welfare funds to produce marriage guidebooks for couples applying for a marriage license and to sponsor marriage skills classes (for which low-income couples may receive vouchers). Arkansas and Louisiana have adopted legislation that makes the divorce process more difficult for married couples.

In Oklahoma, the Department of Health and Human Services has allocated 10 percent of the state’s welfare funds to the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, which, according to a recent Newsweek article, has included $250,000 for “relationship rallies” on college campuses run by evangelical-Christian marriage counselors and for training counselors and educators to offer Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Programs. As the article points out, the “programs are open to the public, but the state encourages welfare recipients to attend by tying attendance to their monthly benefits.”

Finally, Bush outlined his proposal for federal welfare reform in a speech earlier this month urging Congress to toughen the 1996 welfare law, which it will reevaluate this year. Under Bush’s plan, $200 million in federal funds, and $100 million in matching state funds, would be allocated for marriage incentive programs.

While opponents of these incentives are not knocking two-parent families, or the efforts of married parents on welfare to raise families, there are several reasons why they find these programs problematic -- ranging from the interrelation of church and state in several of the states’ programs, which are either faith-based or use some religious cooperation in their work, to the idea that such initiatives might discourage women from leaving abusive husbands (or just plain bad relationships) if marriages don’t work out.

There’s also concern that there is, quite simply, a disproportionate ratio of “marriageable” women to men because of the high rate of imprisonment for minority men. Even more fundamentally, there’s the question of what good marriage will actually do if these marriage programs aren’t tied to initiatives that address poverty and job skills directly: Why should anyone assume that these men would automatically be transformed into “breadwinners” upon marriage, or be in position to offer a supportive environment for their children?

Aside from the practical issues raised by pro-marriage initiatives, it’s apparent that the political rhetorics Berlant observed at work during the Reagan-Bush years are back with a vengeance. Now, they’re being pitched to a citizenry that, after the events of Sept. 11, is even more concerned with national coherence, surveillance and cultural unity -- and which may be all too willing to sacrifice the personal for the political.

Alana Kumbier, television editor for PopPolitics, is a writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio.

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