The Rebel Girl: Punitive “Marriage Promotion”

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Catherine Sameh

“The sexual revolution that began in the 1960s has left two major problems in its wake. The first is the historic increase in non-marital births that have contributed so heavily to the Nation’s domestic problems including poverty, violence, and intergenerational welfare dependency. The second is the explosion of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) that now pose a growing hazard to the Nation’s public health.” –from President Bush’s Welfare Reform Proposal, “Working Toward Independence”

TEMPORARY ASSISTANCE FOR Needy Families (TANF), the 1996 welfare reform program, is now up for reauthorization. Numerous welfare bills are being debated in the House and Senate and Bush is pushing his new welfare reform proposal.

TANF’s main goals were to reduce welfare caseloads; increase employment; implement work requirements and time limits for all cash assistance; and prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, reduce illegitimacy, and promote marriage.

Since 1996, as welfare rolls decreased, monies previously used for food stamps, childcare and health care have been diverted to marriage-promotion programs.

Since 1992, when Bill Clinton began the move toward welfare reform, the blaming of single mothers for “the Nation’s domestic problems” has intensified. Bush’s new plan takes that scapegoating even further by deepening the focus of welfare reform on marriage-promotion and abstinence.

According to the Montana-based Working for Equality and Economic Liberation, the Bush plan “requires states to include explicit descriptions of their family-formation and healthy-marriage efforts in their welfare plans and offers $300 million per year for states to create programs that increase the number of low-income married households.

“[The plan] calls for no new monies for TANF but allocates $435 million for marriage promotion and abstinence-only programs, neither of which has been proven to alleviate poverty.”

While couched in family values rhetoric and concern for children, marriage-promotion  in fact punishes poor families and children who fall outside of its very strict definition of a family. Its supporters don’t just want single mothers to marry; they want them to marry the fathers of their children, regardless of their circumstances.

Naming the Enemy

Wade Horn, welfare chief for the Department of Health and Human Services, has been one of the most outspoken proponents of marriage-promotion and family-formation initiatives. He said: “If an enemy there need be, here is my candidate: family relativism — the notion that all family structures are morally and socially equivalent, all equally deserving of support and equally good for children.”

Under existing marriage-promotion policies, poor unmarried families are eligible for fewer benefits than poor married families. According to the Alternatives to Marriage Project, Horn has “written that unmarried families should only be eligible to receive `limited-supply’ benefits like public housing, job training, and Head Start if there are any available after all married families receive them. He has also argued that cohabiting couples and their children should not be eligible for family benefits.”

Welfare reform has been deeply motivated by racism and a dependence on racist stereotypes. The myth of the Black welfare queen helped generate support for welfare reform by hiding the fact that most people on welfare were white.

Since 1996, most people remaining on welfare are people of color because, according to WEEL, they have been “less likely to be placed in better paying jobs.” WEEL also reports, “Black women are 43% less likely to marry or remarry than white women.”

They assert that the disproportionate incarceration of Black men contributes heavily to this statistic. Marriage-promotion therefore intensifies the racism of welfare reform by punishing Black women who don’t or can’t marry.

Promoting Racism, Violence, Abuse

Half to two-thirds of women on welfare are or have been victims of domestic violence or abuse. By coercing women to marry or stay married to abusive partners, marriage-promotion ignores domestic violence and endangers women and children. Women are asked to trade in their right to divorce and to lives free from violence for the false promise of economic security.

Marriage-promotion and family-formation exacerbate the discrimination that lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) families face every day by denying them access to welfare programs.

Marriage-promotion and family-formation refuse to recognize any alternative family formation, including queer families, single parenthood, nonmarried families and group living.

In addition to being fundamentally racist, sexist and homophobic, marriage-promotion will not lift poor families out of poverty. As the Alternatives to Marriage project puts it so well:

“If marriage were the solution, poor women wouldn’t need to be bribed or bullied into marriage. You can’t feed your children wedding rings or pay your electric bill with your marriage license. As it’s been said, when one poor person marries another poor person, they’re both still poor. The much-touted ill effects of life in a single parent family — children’s higher mortality, ill health, poor school performance — correlate with poverty, not marital status.”

The only good news is that the overt bigotry and class oppression of marriage-promotion could ignite a new multiracial, queerly colored feminist movement.

ATC 101, November-December 2002