WASHINGTON – When Joe Jones adds marriage lessons this year to the publicly funded programs he runs at the Center for Fathers, Families and Workforce Development in Baltimore, he will start with the fundamentals — respect, responsibility, commitment.
The subjects might seem rudimentary to people who learned them as children growing up with married parents. But Jones knows those are not the people he will teach.
“What really scares me is the number of men who have (not) had . . . relationships with their own fathers,” said Jones, the center’s president. “Therefore, when they think about the idea of family formation, it does not include a man in the household.
“Where do they begin to understand how important the institution of marriage could be to them and to their children?” he asked.
The White House hopes to answer that question with its plan to spend at least $100 million next year for programs to encourage marriage for low-income, single parents, with an eye to helping their kids.
The initiative would provide grants to state and local communities for programs that promote tying the knot. But the Bush administration has provided few details on how the money could be spent, and it has not pointed to a single program anywhere in the country that potential grant applicants could use as a template.
Strengthening families has been an aim of welfare reform since it was enacted in 1996, but that goal was overshadowed by the more pressing objective of reducing the number of recipients on the rolls, said Steve Barbour, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources’ Administration for Children and Families.
“Now that we cut welfare rolls, people are starting to say, how do we prevent welfare from happening in the first place?” Barbour said. “The goal of the new grant program is to reach out into communities to reduce unwed births and go to the heart of family formation.”
But in Maryland — where single parents headed roughly 200,000 households with children in 2000, compared to about 460,000 married households — not everyone agrees. Some advocates worry that the government is trying to use marriage as a quick fix for serious social ills or as a way to meddle in Americans’ private lives.
Burt Barnow, associate research director at the Institute for Policy Studies at Johns Hopkins University, said it is not clear whether marriage itself makes families more stable. Married people tend to earn more than single parents, he said, and they often have more money and time between them to raise children.
“But you have to ask yourself, is it simply that the more capable people get married or is it the marriage itself that helps the family structure?” Barnow said. “That’s always kind of a mystery.”
John Nugent, president of Planned Parenthood of Maryland, said the government’s promotion of marriage is an ill-conceived way to deal with serious problems facing the poor.
“Philosophically, this certainly goes with the whole Bush administration and the return to more traditional, conservative values,” Nugent said. “My problem is that we jump to the conclusion that marriage or a two-parent family is a solution to everything. I just don’t see where you can draw that inference.”
Nugent said federal money aimed at strengthening families would be better spent teaching adults how to be better parents.
“I’d rather put $100 million on parenting classes,” Nugent said. “I think that as people become better parents and become better human beings that marriage will naturally flow from that.”
But proponents, like Jones, say encouraging marriage is a critical way to curb problems like child poverty, violence against children and teen pregnancy, by establishing a firm family structure to act as a safety net for kids and a support system for adults.
Maryland already indirectly funds marriage education through its support of fatherhood programs, several of which offer a marriage element, said Keith Snipes, deputy director of fatherhood initiatives for the state’s Department of Human Resources.
Snipes said there is no officially accepted program and no measure for success, however, and no way to know which fatherhood programs provide marriage education. Neither could he say how much state and federal money goes to fatherhood programs in Maryland each year.
Snipes did say, however, that the Bush proposal seems to align with Maryland’s loose policy on marriage education, adding that if Bush’s plan is approved by Congress, Maryland would likely apply for federal funds.
“Marriage is important, in fact vital in many cases to a child’s well- being,” Snipes said. “However, the marriage is good when it is voluntary. We are certainly not going to push anyone into a marriage situation that would be dangerous or bad for them.”
Despite such assurances, however, others worried that appropriating such a huge sum without a specific plan for spending and tracking it will just waste taxpayers’ money.
“I think that all sounds fuzzy. I think it’s a waste of revenue at this point,” said Philip J. Sorensen, executive presbyter of the Baltimore Presbytery.
“I’m in favor of marriage, and I’m in favor of low-income persons being married, but I don’t really see right now how that money is going to be used,” he said.