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The Bush Doctrine : Abstain, Be Married And Work By Stacey Barney

Is the relationship between poverty and family dissolution stronger than the relationship between poverty and unemployment or is one an impetus for the other? The Bush administration certainly seems to think the former-that poverty is tied to family dissolution and only family dissolution.

To that end, President Bush proposes to spend $435 million not on increasing the benefits allowed under unemployment insurance or the creation of new jobs in industry or even allowing welfare recipients to pursue college degrees in lieu of problematic job training options, but on welfare reform initiatives that represent little more than a preaching to the poor on the institution of marriage and the morality of abstinence.

This is President Bush's response to the nation's increasing number of working poor-former welfare recipients who now make just enough to be ineligible for welfare benefits, but not enough to feed their families or pay the rent. The very same welfare recipients whose benefits expired after reaching the five-year time limit established by the last (1996) welfare reform, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).

Bush packages his reforms as just four administrational goals: 1. Increase the work requirements for welfare recipients 2. Strengthen families via marriage, marriage counseling, and abstinence education 3. Give state government more control over the implementation of welfare and job training programs and 4. Show compassion to those in need. But is there really any significant difference between the welfare reforms Bush proposes and the past legislation?

No, not really. An increase in the working hours of welfare recipients was an original goal of TANF, although capped at 30 hours. Furthermore, the strengthening of families through marriage and the reduction of unwanted pregnancies is also nothing new. This is language already incorporated into the 1996 legislation. In fact, TANF already provides $50 million a year for abstinence education. Bush is just suggesting an increase to these funds. Less federal control is also part of the TANF rhetoric. However, Bush does introduce a new alternative for who should control the government funds directed towards welfare programs and therefore who imparts the compassion.

True to the Republican instinct to decentralize government, Bush hopes to take the government out of the welfare reform equation altogether by giving funds to "faith-based" community organizations instead of state agencies. "Charities," the president says, "and faith-based groups fill needs that no welfare system, no matter how well designed, can possibly fill...In times of personal crisis, people do not need the rules of a bureaucracy; they need the help of a neighbor."

Encouraged by the lowest poverty rates since 1973, Bush goes on in his speech to St. Luke's Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. to paint his "faith-based initiative" goals as the road to post-poverty America. And, the money Bush proposes to put behind these goals for welfare reform - $17 billion a year for the years 2003-2007, shows that he is serious.

Just on his goal to strengthen families, Bush seeks to spend $300 million a year in support of what he recognizes as "good programs [that] help couples who want to get married and stay married." Bush says, "Premarital education programs can increase happiness in marriage and reduce divorce by teaching couples how to resolve conflict, how to improve communication, and most importantly, how to treat each other with respect."

While this may be true of many marriage-counseling programs across the nation, is it really the answer for single mothers receiving welfare benefits? Counseling for couples struggling in their marriages and willing to receive outside help is generally a good thing. No one argues that. But is the president's suggestion that single mothers should marry the fathers of their children as a way to improve their socio-economic status? Marriage only works when two individuals are compatible and committed to each other. Moreover, marriage will only work if the union improves the couple's financial circumstance, not worsens it.

Often the fathers Bush wishes would live up to their responsibilities aren't doing so because they are unemployed, unemployable, or dysfunctional. Rep. Ben Cardin of Maryland echoes this concern saying, "If you want to make someone more attractive for marriage, you help that person get training and you help that person get a job." This is a sentiment that certainly points to a more salient relationship between poverty and the need for jobs, instead of the Bush administration's tunnel-vision focus on marital status and pregnancy.

In addition to the $300 million Bush wants to spend on marriage counseling for the poor, he wants to spend another $135 million in support of abstinence education programs. Bush says, "Abstinence is the surest way and the only completely effective way to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases." Again, it's hard to disagree with the fact that abstaining from sex does prevent pregnancy and disease, but does this fact measure up to the reality of American society?

The truth is that American youth are sexually active, and sex within the confines of marriage is the mantra of a bygone era stomped out by the advent of sexually explicit music videos and far more creative license given to primetime T.V. And then there's always the latest Hollywood blockbuster to contend with. Surely a more reasonable way to spend $135 million is on the implementation of programs that educate youth on not only abstinence, but also the alternative Bush has yet to acknowledge-birth control.

But Bush's initiatives of marriage and abstinence as panaceas for the poor shouldn't be a shock. This is the same man that when governor of Texas would have had welfare mothers "sign responsibility agreements naming the fathers of their children and promising not to have [any] more children out of wedlock (U.S. News & World Report, 1996)," in order to receive their benefits. This sort of ideology does not work because it does not address why out-of-wedlock births occur in the first place or why families fall apart.

After the ink on a responsibility agreement has dried, there is still an overwhelming feeling of hopelessness and helplessness associated with the ability to make ends meet that needs to be addressed. How does a family stay together and stay strong when parents struggle or fail to provide for themselves and their children? How do children cope with this sense of powerlessness? Are abstinence education programs built to contend with that? Can abstinence programs or marriage counseling provide jobs or job training for mommy and daddy?

No, but when all is said and done, welfare initiatives must be implemented. The question is how to most effectively focus the time, energy, and money the government is willing to allot to welfare reforms. The most worthwhile focus of Bush's not so innovative plan is in regards to the work requirements for welfare recipients. Herein lies the chance for the innovation Bush desires in welfare reform. It's simply time to focus on the creation of jobs and effective job training, and not just who is married to whom or abstinence. And certainly the focus shouldn't be on welfare recipients working longer hours (Bush seeks an increase from 30 to 40 hours) for a welfare check; especially since such an increase in the hours of work requirements will also lead to an increase in the costs of child care as single parents will need additional supervision for their children, along with help in the transportation of children from school to after-school childcare facilities.

Bush needs to look past the concerns of marriage licenses and abstinence campaigns to the issue of jobs, specifically job training - also, not a new idea. Job training services has been a part of welfare reform rhetoric for over thirty years. "Beginning in the early 1960s, the government initiated several programs to improve worker skills. The Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of 1973 and, most recently, the Job Training Partnership Act of 1982 were the principal legislative vehicles for developing federal training programs (The Employment Policy Foundation, 1997)." However, the idea of what constitutes effective job training may be the new and needed question to ask given that past "governmental attempts to train workers have been mostly unsuccessful (Employment Policy Foundation, 1997)."

The first question and perhaps most poignant question to ask about effective job training is why college degrees are not part of job training initiatives. Why does "federal law cap post-secondary studies [at]...12 months, [in favor of pushing welfare recipients] into low-wage vocational tracks or minimal job-training (Neil deMause of Institute for Public Affairs In These Times, 2000)," instead of college classrooms that could lead recipients to degrees that would provide the most secure avenue to financial independence?

Bush is ultimately pushing his welfare reform package on the grounds that the reforms instituted by TANF legislation in 1996 were successful. After all, didn't the 1996 reforms lead to a decrease in welfare caseloads by more than half (53%) as well as a decrease in the national poverty rate (11.3%)? This is success that Bush wants to build upon. And he is quite right to do so. But is further welfare reform that focuses on marriage and abstinence the way? Only if the welfare reform initiatives that are already in place are, in fact, directly responsible for the successes Bush lauds. What of the role played by the booming economy that characterized the latter part of the 1990's? Didn't this play any role in the reduction of welfare caseloads and the number of people living below the poverty line?

It is really hard to say which is most responsible - welfare reform or a thriving economy, but the findings of the Center for Budget and Priority Policies show in retrospect that the decline in welfare caseloads and poverty may be more related to a once thriving economy than welfare reforms. The findings of this research organization and policy institute show that as the country entered an economic downslide in 2001 the monthly unemployment rate, which averaged 4% in 2000 increased to 4.9% by August 2001 even with the 1996 welfare reforms in place.

The next question to ask is how much of this increase in unemployment represents former welfare recipients? Again, hard to say since no definitive study on the post - welfare lives of former welfare recipients exists. Not only that, but the Center for Budget and Priority Policies also reports, "The average poor person fell further below the poverty line in 1999 and 2000 than in any other year on record." Again, this is in the face of 1996 legislation and government statistics that say poverty is at its' lowest point since 1973.

So, in light of the still rising unemployment rate and the poor in effect becoming poorer, how will the uncertain economy of post September 11th now affect former welfare recipients in minimum wage jobs and current welfare recipients facing an expiration of benefits?

Without a clear initiative to create jobs and job training opportunities that will successfully and permanently lift the poor and the working poor out of poverty, Bush will never see the post-poverty America he speaks of, only a repeat of the last thirty years.

In the final analysis, yes there is certainly a relationship between poverty and the family unit. No one denies that. Family stability and unwanted pregnancies are distressing societal problems that must be addressed by legislation; however family units cannot remain strong if they are incapable of paying their bills.

Unemployment and the lack of jobs that can sustain a family lead to the break up of family. The dissolution of family cannot be addressed before or instead of the issue of jobs and job training. An answer to the lack of jobs, and a resistance to push welfare recipients into low paying jobs needs to come before the increased push for marriage counseling and abstinence education.

Perhaps Bush and the Democrats could even come up with a welfare reform package that marries both the ideas of strong families and the need for jobs.

Stacey Barney is an editorial page writer for Ms. Barney can be contacted at

Stacey Barney

Thursday, March 7, 2002

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