Acton Commentary

The Continuing Vision of Welfare Reform


Even with the sound successes of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, it is somewhat discouraging that American policy makers continue to dwell on how to increase the scope and reach of the government—along with its cost. The latest expansion of the welfare state's size and scope comes in the form of Bush Administration proposals to involve government in the issue of marriage. While the moral instincts of the Bush Administration are to be lauded, the thought that the welfare state apparatus that decimated the family life of the poor could now be employed to foster sound marriages and responsible fatherhood approaches the absurd.

Due respect, however, must be given to the President's desire to promote marriage as the primary vehicle of poverty alleviation. Study after study indicates that married couples enjoy higher levels of prosperity, education, and overall familial well-being. It is important for policy makers to send a clear message that out-of-wedlock births are not good for children, moms, dads, and the community as a whole. Inasmuch as the administration seeks to enshrine the common sense principle that healthy marriages are good for children, a great deal has already been accomplished. Promoting the virtues of healthy marriages is done best not by creating new programs with big budgets and large administrative bureaucracies. Rather, an appropriate first step would be to remove those penalties currently in the social service regulatory regime that make marriage “too costly” for those at the bottom end of the economic spectrum.

Even in the wake of the 1996 welfare reform legislation, couples can lose up to a quarter of their income simply by getting married. Often, marriage pushes a couple above the income eligibility limits, forcing a reduction in non-cash benefits, such as food stamps, which actually reduces the couple's total economic position. Such penalties reduce the incentive to productive work and increase the “cost” of marriage. The difficulty with government social services is that they are a one-size-fits-all solution to the very unique and individual situations that couples face. As a result of government inefficiency, the most common sense reforms that could occur are simply removing tax code and regulatory penalties that make marriage too costly for many couples.

Another important point in this debate centers on policy makers' constant desire to throw money at an admirable social goal—an increase in healthy marriages. The proposed program, currently in draft form, would involve a maximum of $22 million in federal and state money for approximately 15 communities. This figure, however, is not reflective of the amount of money individual states may choose to set aside within the funding provided by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant each state receives. Total costs of these programs could go into the hundreds of millions of dollars, with no clear aim as to what the programs are to do or how success will be measured.

Their proposed activities include educating young people about the benefits of marriage, providing skills necessary for healthy marriages, and creating media campaigns to rebuild cultural norms related to marriage, family formation, fatherhood, and the benefits of delaying childbearing until marriage. While these are admirable social goals, a very serious question remains—is it even possible for a one-size-fits-all, lowest common denominator government bureaucracy to promote and present a spiritually, psychologically, and personally sound understanding of marriage and family life? Given the great cultural and moral divides that are currently present in nearly all national policy debates, I doubt a morally sound vision of marriage can be sustained by the various agencies of government.

Given the Bush Administration's propensity to engage the expertise of faith-based organizations in attempting to rebuild and sustain a culture of responsibility and personal accountability, it seems that it has overlooked the resources of faith-based organizations in promoting and sustaining healthy marriages. The difficulty with government involvement in marriage promotion is that government is not capable of communicating the compelling moral vision needed to sustain marriages in our current culture—a culture that values lifestyle liberalism, “self-actualization,” and the prerogatives of self over the self-sacrifice involved in healthy marriages. Marriage is a public commitment, but also one that is profoundly spiritual and personal in nature. Most appropriately, faith-based organizations, commonly known as churches and ministries, have always been on the front line of the battle in promoting and sustaining healthy marriages. The matrimonial commitment involves the deepest convictions of the human person and to think that any government program is capable of actively fostering these relationships, must less the culture necessary to truly support them, is simply not tenable. Government involvement in promoting marriage should extend no farther than removing the disincentives and obstacles that have served to discourage marriage in the past.

While it is encouraging to see the virtues of marriage restored to a central place in our nation's social policy, it is difficult to understand just how these programs will work or what the unintended effects of these government programs might be. Since this is the first time such programs have been attempted by government social service agencies, the possibility of these programs' success is cast into further doubt. The welcome desire of the Bush Administration to promote marriage serves as a prime opportunity to engage the wealth of experience contained within the faith-based community. Marriage and family life is an issue that most appropriately belongs to those capable of ministering to the needs of the married and those desiring marriage. When the coercive power of government involves itself in issues properly belonging within the sphere of civil society, even with the best of intentions, the unintended effects of such involvement almost always results in irreparable harm to civil society and its mediating institutions. In the case of marriage, civil society's preeminent institution, the best policy government can adopt is one that is both approving and “hands off” in every way.