Poor Need Job Skills, Not Wedding Rings

Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., and Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.-D.C., were out recently drumming up more funding for a new Washington, D.C.-based marriage promotion incentive program for low-income families. It gives low-income couples who choose to get married many advantages, from priority status for low-income and federally-funded housing to "marriage development accounts," which provide a federally-funded match of three to one for their savings. This program is one of many across the country promoting marriage as a solution to poverty.

At the same time, in another part of the country, the legality of marriage promotion programs is coming into question. Americans United for Separation of Church and State recently filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services to block taxpayer funding for a Vancouver, Wash., program that offers "Bible-based" marriage education, citing a violation of the necessary separation between church and state. The debate over marriage promotion programs has officially begun in the courts, and I, for one, hope they are required to change.

The president created the Healthy Marriage Initiative in 2002 to promote marriage among low-income Americans as a way to end poverty and reduce the number of single-parent families. This idea was first presented in the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill, which established the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The Healthy Marriage program was recently given a boost when it was included in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 that became law this year. The new legislation guarantees $100 million a year over the next five years to be given out to organizations -- many of them religious -- for "healthy marriage promotion activities."

A marriage certificate can't solve every problem faced by America's families. It certainly doesn't keep households across America from the economic strains of job layoffs, inadequate or no health insurance, skyrocketing debt, low wages and the inability to afford higher education. And, in fact, for many women involved in abusive relationships, marriage would be a dangerous step in the wrong direction. Marriage is not the cure-all that the Bush administration claims, nor is it an option for many Americans.

Families across America are indeed struggling, but this program offers no solutions to their real problems: Over 45 million Americans did not have health insurance in 2004. Many are increasingly turning to credit cards to pay their rising bills; Americans now owe over $800 billion in credit card debt. Thirty-seven million Americans live below the poverty line, and 17 percent of children in America live in poverty.

This adds up to a startling reality about the prospects for America's kids, 40 percent of whom are part of low-income families. Their most immediate need is not for their parents to get married -- in fact, half of the children in low-income families live with married parents already. Marriage promotion rings hollow for these families, who are working hard to give their kids a chance in life, yet continuing to fall behind.

This initiative further entrenches an already obvious desire of the this administration and many in Congress -- to create a hierarchy of households in America based on the type of relationship two adults are enjoined in, most notably to the exclusion of same-sex couples. Despite the view offered by many of those on the partisan right, the majority of Americans still believe in the principles of equality, opportunity and fairness for all. Public policies enacted by our government should be beneficial to all Americans who need assistance, not just those in heterosexual marriages.

Yes, marriage offers many benefits to families. But if President Bush really wants to strengthen families, than he'd put his muscle behind policies that would help all families stay healthy, build assets, and plan ahead for education and retirement. Maybe our elected officials need to be reminded of the fact that families need financial security -- a no-brainer, but it seems many have forgotten (witness the recent minimum wage debate). Studies have shown that economic strain is likely a major reason why many marriages split and relationships end. If Congress wants to fortify marriage and the family, they should look more closely at the lives and challenges faced by real families in this country, instead of using religious-fundamentalist ideology to help craft policy, which excludes so many. Unfortunately, the administration is doing just that -- at the cost of programs that are in place to help Americans solve their most pressing concerns. "Healthy Marriage Promotion Activities" divert millions in funding from beneficial programs such as higher education aid, child care, job training and Medicaid that ideally help all families. The Deficit Reduction Act made almost $40 billion in cuts to these and other programs.

As President Bush continues his marriage zealotry, the real economic problems facing families continue to go ignored. Imagine if the president used his power to proclaim a "Living Wage Week" to discuss the importance of livable wages in the fight to end poverty. We might finally have a real debate about the social contract and get down to the business of restoring opportunity for everyone.

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