From Fatherhood to Marriage
by Jean Hardisty
The promotion of marriage has
emerged as one of the less controversial of the George W. Bush Administration's
"family values" initiatives. It seems likely that the $300 million allocated to
promote marriage for welfare recipients as part of the Administration's welfare
"reform" reauthorization bill will be largely uncontested in Congress when the
reauthorization comes to a vote later in 2003. In this period of economic
insecurity and social conservatism, politicians are reluctant to take a stand
that could appear to oppose marriage.
But if the public had a fuller
understanding of the origins of this governmental marriage initiative and the
means proposed for its implementation, questions would surely fly. These might
include: Why would Health and Human Services, a federal department, promote
legislation that would grant federal monies to religious groups to entice and
cajole low-income women and men to marry? What sector of the Bush Administration's
base of support is behind this legislation? Whose interests does it serve?
Roots of the Marriage Initiative
From the Old Right of Strom
Thurmond to the New Right of Newt Gingrich and the present-day Republican Party
platform, preserving the heterosexual nuclear family has been an ideological
centerpiece of conservative thought. When the New Right emerged with the
election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980, "family values" was its lead
message. The secular New Right and the Christian Right, two movements whose
influence dominated the Reagan Administration, jointly mounted vicious attacks
on liberalism, especially liberal legislative programs that promoted women's
rights, gay rights, and welfare rights, as the cause of "the breakdown of the
American family." But the central piece of legislation promoted by the Reagan
Administration, the so-called "Family Protection Act," failed to pass a
Congress dominated by Democratic legislators.
The impressive growth of the
Christian Right during the 1980s and 1990s was a boon to the right wing of the
Republican Party. Christian Right mobilizations, such as the massive Promise
Keepers rallies in stadiums across the country, focused the Right's attention
on one "family values" theme - the importance of the father to a healthy
Christian family. In a now-famous quote, Promise Keepers author Tony Evans
advised men to tell their wives that they are taking back their role as head of
the family: "I am not suggesting that you ask for your role back, I'm urging you to take it back" (emphasis in the original). Evans'
quote and others from Promise Keepers leaders unmasked the Promise Keepers'
aspiration to strengthen the patriarchal family model within conservative
evangelical and fundamentalist Christian churches. Feminists were
understandably alarmed. But Promise Keepers lowered its profile and trimmed
back its operations in the mid-1990s after criticism for excluding women from
its rallies and complaints about the rallies' high cost of admission.
Nonetheless, the agenda of
restoring "fathers' rights" was gaining ground within the Right and the
Republican Party, spurred in part by Dan Quayle's 1992 attack on the TV show Murphy
Brown for featuring a woman choosing to
raise a child alone. Quayle stated that the violent 1992 Los Angeles protests,
following the acquittal of four L.A. police officers in the beating of Rodney
King, were in part caused by a "poverty of values" that included the acceptance
of unwed motherhood. In 1994, the founding of the National Fatherhood
Initiative by Wade Horn and others marked the launch of an official rightist
The fatherhood movement has always
included a wide ideological spectrum.
At the liberal end are the pro-feminist fathers' groups, whose goal is to
encourage men to become more involved in childcare and household work.
On the extreme right are furious divorced
fathers, who claim that their wives falsely accused them of battering, "stole
the children," and now, with the collusion of the court system, demand alimony
payment. The most influential and well known of fatherhood groups are aligned with the Right's
family values agenda and promote a return to the traditional nuclear
heterosexual, male-headed family as the only healthy environment for childrearing.
From its inception, the Right's
fatherhood movement painted "fatherlessness" as "the most harmful demographic
trend of this society" and as a leading cause of the decline in child welfare.
This argument drew on the conclusions of the 1965 "Moynihan Report," which
identified the single-mother head of family as the principal cause of what he
describes as an economic and social crisis in the African American community.
Right-wing arguments for the importance of a father to the success of a family
include the father's role as the family breadwinner, the family's spiritual
guide, and the mentor and role model to male children. Fathers' rights groups
even claim that the father is the only parent who can impart the principles of
democracy to his children. They claim that these roles are unfilled in a
single-parent family headed by the mother, and the results are poverty, crime,
drug use, violence, and an epidemic of disrespect.
As president of the National
Fatherhood Initiative (NFI), Wade Horn was one of the most effective
popularizers of the messages of the fatherhood movement. While promoting a
standard rightist "pro-family" line and dwelling on the negative consequences
of a fatherless family, he avoided the explicit anti-women vitriol of many
rightist fatherhood activists. Perhaps that explains why, in 2001, George W.
Bush tapped him to be Assistant Secretary for Family Support at the Department
of Health and Human Services (HHS). As such, he is in charge of the
administration of welfare "reform" programs and the lead bureaucrat pushing the
Bush Administration's welfare reauthorization package in 2003.
Not surprisingly, conservative
social policies are prominent in shaping that reauthorization bill. Building on
rhetoric of marriage promotion in the 1996 welfare reform act, known as the
Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which
established the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, the
bill's proposed reauthorization now contains $300 million for marriage
promotion and preservation.
In his new position, Wade Horn has
retained his commitment to the Right's social goal of promoting fatherhood, but
he now emphasizes marriage, along with fatherhood. He has added a veneer of
authenticity by selectively using social science and economic arguments. Now
Horn promotes marriage as a cure for poverty. He and Secretary of Health and
Human Services Tommy Thompson have wedded the fatherhood ideas of the National
Fatherhood Initiative and the pro-marriage agenda of Robert Rector, chief
welfare policy expert at the Heritage Foundation and a principal architect of
PRWORA. Rector has testified that he supports states spending at least 10
percent of all TANF funds for "specific pro-marriage activities."
In addition to promoting fatherhood
and marriage through the welfare reauthorization bill, Health and Human
Services itself supports a separate HHS expenditure of $315 million over five
years for use by the states to "promote fatherhood and healthy marriage."
In arguing for this expensive - and manipulative - program, Assistant Secretary
Horn claims that when single mothers wed the fathers of their children, two
incomes create a stronger financial base for the family, the children are
properly raised, and a single mother's poverty will give way to a solid family
Benefits? Who is Harmed?
Although neither Horn nor Rector is
visibly tied to the religious Right, their pro-family, pro-fatherhood policies
are completely compatible with the Christian Right's agenda and will directly
benefit Christian Right groups. The Bush Administration's stated preference for
opening its social service funding to "charitable choice" - that is, funding
social services which are provided by religious groups - would allow religious
social service providers to receive federal monies to provide social services
to targeted groups. The likely recipients of federal monies proposed within
the welfare reauthorization bill are Christian groups such as Marriage Savers,
or other conservative faith-based groups, which provide pro-marriage counseling
and services, rather than secular groups, which recognize the possible benefits
of separation or divorce. President Bush virtually assured this outcome when he
established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives,
established to make Federal programs more friendly to faith-based and community
solutions and to make federal funding more accessible. The
result will be a financial boondoggle for Christian family therapy groups, a
violation of the separation of church and state, and discrimination against
For purposes of both HHS funding
and the $300 million proposed within the PROWA reauthorization, "family" and
"marriage" are narrowly defined as heterosexual. This definition explicitly
denies that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) families exist and
fails to acknowledge that legally sanctioned marriage is not available to these
families. Further, promoting the heterosexual,
two-parent married family as the only socially acceptable family stigmatizes
the children of LGBT parents.
Women for an Ideological Agenda
Could marriage actually provide a
road out of poverty for welfare recipients and their children as Wade Horn and
the Bush Administration claim? Research clearly demonstrates that when
low-income women and men marry each other, marriage has little impact on their
collective poverty, and that of their children, because both are at the bottom
of the wage scale and are irregularly employed. Further, studies have
shown for some years that women can most reliably rise out of poverty when they
have access to education and support programs, such as day care, job training,
and housing assistance, rather than through marriage.
Congress has cut access to education and funding for support programs in both
the 1996 welfare reform bill and its proposed reauthorization bill. Instead,
the federal government encourages programs like West Virginia's that reward
married welfare recipients with a $100 per month bonus, thereby discriminating
against unmarried mothers.
Is it that women's rights advocates
are largely opposed to this marriage initiative because they are simply
anti-marriage and therefore unable to see the benefits it would bring to
low-income women and children? Feminists have never opposed marriage per se. Marriage certainly is very often beneficial to
women and children; feminists simply argue that it is a woman's right to make
her own decisions about whether to marry and when to leave a marriage, free of
pressure or government intervention. The Right itself rails against
governmental programs that "dictate" what rights an individual can and cannot
exercise. Yet in the case of low-income women's personal decisions to marry,
there is no such opposition.
Feminists also oppose the marriage
initiatives of the Bush Administration because, after decades of social science
analysis and the painfully slow evolution of social services for battered women
and children, the Bush Administration's fatherhood and marriage initiatives
strengthen the already-strong hand of husbands, fathers, and even of live-in,
male partners. In Massachusetts, partly as a result of fathers' rights
activism, the family court system now shows systematic bias against granting a
woman custody of her children if her husband pursues custody, even if he is a
batterer. Marriage initiative programs counsel
women not just to marry, but also not to divorce. That, say women's rights
activists, is a formula for keeping women and children in unhappy, and even
It is unlikely that most middle
class American women would tolerate this sort of federally funded manipulation
of their personal lives. Do low-income women have comparable options to resist?
 Tony Evans, "Spiritual Purity," in: Al
Janssen, ed., Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper (Colorado Springs, Focus on the Family), 1994, p. 79.
 David Blankenhorn, Fatherless
America (New York: Basic Books), 1995, p. 1
 Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "The Negro
Family: The Case for National Action" (Washington, D.C., 1965).
 Robert Rector, "Using Welfare Reform
to Strengthen Marriage," American Experiment Quarterly, 2001, p. 64.
 Sean Cahill and Kenneth T. Jones,
"Leaving Our Children Behind" (New York: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force,
2001), p. 31.
 See: "Leaving Our Children Behind,"
 Stephanie Coontz and Nancy Folbre,
"Marriage, Poverty, and Public Policy: A Discussion Paper from the Council on
Contemporary Families," Fifth Annual CCF Conference, April 26-28, 2002, pp.
 "From Poverty to Self-Sufficiency: The
Role of Postsecondary Education in Welfare Reform." (Washington, DC: Center for
Women Policy Studies), 2002.
 "Battered Mothers Speak Out: A Human
Rights Report on Domestic Violence and Child Custody in the Massachusetts
Family Courts," Battered Mothers' Testimony Project, Wellesley Centers for
Women, November, 2002.