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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?

The 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).[1] 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 fatherhood movement.

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.[2] 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.[3] 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."[4]

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."[5] 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 unit.

Who 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.[6] The result will be a financial boondoggle for Christian family therapy groups, a violation of the separation of church and state, and discrimination against non-traditional families.

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.[7] Further, promoting the heterosexual, two-parent married family as the only socially acceptable family stigmatizes the children of LGBT parents.

Manipulating 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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 abusive, situations.

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?

[1] Tony Evans, "Spiritual Purity," in: Al Janssen, ed., Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper (Colorado Springs, Focus on the Family), 1994, p. 79.

[2] David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America (New York: Basic Books), 1995, p. 1

[3] Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" (Washington, D.C., 1965).

[4] Robert Rector, "Using Welfare Reform to Strengthen Marriage," American Experiment Quarterly, 2001, p. 64.

[5] Sean Cahill and Kenneth T. Jones, "Leaving Our Children Behind" (New York: National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, 2001), p. 31.

[6] www.FaithbasedCommunityInitiatives.org Accessed on home page, Feb. 5, 2003.

[7] See: "Leaving Our Children Behind," op. cit.

[8] 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. 4-6.

[9] "From Poverty to Self-Sufficiency: The Role of Postsecondary Education in Welfare Reform." (Washington, DC: Center for Women Policy Studies), 2002.

[10] "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.